In the early 1980s, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher emerged victorious from a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands that propelled her to a landslide victory in the 1983 general election. On July 19, 1984, she gave a speech to the assembled legislators of her Conservative party, in which she said that she had defeated “the enemy without,” but that “the enemy within . . . is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” She was referring to government-sector unions, and specifically the mineworkers’ union, which was then attempting to hold Britain hostage. (In Britain, the mines had been nationalized, hence their workers had a government-sector union.)
The union was able to attempt that because generations of socialist governments — including nominally Conservative ones — had increased the size and scope of the state and allowed the unions to acquire privileges that put them beyond the law. Today, with America’s prosperity already hobbled under the weight of bigger and more expansive government, we see that pattern replicating itself here. We must confront this enemy within before it crushes us.
Like their British counterparts then, American government-union members today get paid more than the workers in the private sector, enjoy better benefits, and are increasingly exempt from laws that govern everyone else. These unions are bankrupting states with lavish pay and benefit costs.
Public-sector unionism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow its public employees to unionize, and other states then followed suit. In 1962, Pres. John F. Kennedy issued an executive order allowing federal employees to join unions. Since then, union membership in the public sector has grown by leaps and bounds. In January of this year, for the first time, government-sector union membership was larger than union membership in the private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 22.2 million government workers in the U.S. Almost 8 million of them are unionized, compared with only 7.4 million in the private sector. These unions are at the forefront of the movement for more expansive and expensive government. They use forced dues to lobby for greater pay and better benefits.
The Center for Responsive Politics lists the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as second on its list of top all-time political donors. The Wall Street Journal has reported that AFSCME was the largest outside spender of the 2010 election. The 1.6-million-member organization spent almost $90 million — a stunning amount given that the union had only $97.4 million in assets in 2009. AFSCME was forced to use a $16 million emergency account and take out a $2 million loan to pay for its political activities. Before the election, Larry Scanlon, head of AFSCME’s political operations, reinforced the weight of the union’s political giving, saying: “We’re the big dog.” AFSCME president Gerald McEntee also commented on the size of the contributions: “We’re spending big. And we’re damn happy it’s big. And our members are damn happy it’s big — it’s their money.”
The National Education Association (NEA) is eighth on the all-time political-donors list, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is eleventh, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) comes in at 13th. The NEA and AFT spent over $75 million on politics and lobbying in the 2009 fiscal year alone. In short, public-sector unions constitute a permanent, well-funded, self-supporting lobby for bigger government. The teachers’ unions’ investment paid off in August, when the House of Representatives prematurely reconvened to pass the Education Jobs Fund — which added $10 billion to the $53.5 billion Congress had already approved to bail out unionized teachers.