Just when we’d been told the Chamber of Commerce had bought the election, along comes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to pour nearly $90 million into the campaign.
According to the Wall Street Journal, this makes the public-sector union the biggest spender of all the outside groups. The National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union rank among the top five. Collectively, these three unions representing millions of public workers — only the SEIU is majority private — are devoting an estimated $170 million to an election Democrats insist that they are losing because of the nefarious influence of outside money.
AFSCME is the ideal champion of a Democratic party that is increasingly run by and for the public sector. At their most basic, the stakes of the 2010 election are whether government works for us, or we work for government. No one has a more direct political and financial stake in this question than AFSCME and its compatriots. Their bottom line depends on making us work for them — for their ever-expanding ranks, for their salaries, for their benefits, for their pensions.
And, ultimately, for their campaign coffers. The head of AFSCME’s political operation, Larry Scanlon, explained to the Journal, “The more members coming in, the more dues coming in, the more money we have for politics.” Q.E.D.
In this sense, Pres. Barack Obama’s signature economic initiative, the stimulus, contributed to AFSCME’s extravagant campaign to save the officeholders who voted for the stimulus. More than $150 billion in stimulus and other federal funds flowed to the states to ensure that AFSCME members were spared layoffs from the recession, or from potential reforms to loosen the fiscal death grip unions have on states like California and New York.
The Journal reports that AFSCME’s ranks have grown by 25 percent in the past ten years, and its election spending has steadily increased from $19 million in 1998 to almost five times that today. Once they were allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining beginning in the 1950s, public-sector unions steadily came to dominate the labor movement. A decade ago, public workers were 42 percent of unionized workers; they are more than half today.
There is no self-generating check on their voraciousness. “In the private sector, the wage demands of union workers cannot exceed a certain threshold,” Daniel DiSalvo writes in a compelling essay on public-sector unionism in the journal National Affairs. “If they do, they can render their employers uncompetitive, threatening workers’ long-term job security. In the public sector, though, government is the monopoly provider of many services, eliminating any market pressures.”
The public-sector unions exemplify a government that is self-serving and out of control. They take government dollars paid to them and use them to elect management that will pay them even more, in a perpetual feedback loop of large-scale patronage. In President Obama, the unions have their natural ally, and in the Tea Party, their natural adversary.
Obama represents the Democrats’ transformation into an entity wholly at the service of the public workers. Bill Clinton came from the (now-defunct) union-skeptical Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democratic party. In his new book, Radical-in-Chief, Stanley Kurtz documents how Obama arose out of a world of leftist ferment, a complex of unions, foundations, and community groups that sought to make themselves “socialist incubators,” in the phrase of an influential left-wing strategist. AFSCME and its ilk can look to Obama as one of their own.
The Tea Party, though, is anathema. It is a genuine grassroots movement, whereas the unions are hierarchical. It is a collection of taxpayers, whereas the unions feast on tax revenue. It funds its activities from voluntary donations big and small, whereas the unions spend mandatory dues. It is devoted to reducing the size of government, whereas the unions can’t abide any diminishment of their realm.
In this epic conflict of visions, AFSCME and other public-sector unions will doggedly fight to the last taxpayer dollar.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.