Politics & Policy

Public Unions Still Spreading

In a time of austerity, some states continue to go along.

In the wake of the 2010 midterms, newly elected Republican governors have, quite rightly, targeted public-sector unions — specifically, their lavish, taxpayer-funded pensions — in an effort to rein in state budget deficits. The results have been mixed (see: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker vs. Ohio’s John Kasich), and the struggle continues.

But there is a less-publicized flip side to the GOP’s campaign to wrest power from entrenched union interests. Whereas Republican governors are attempting to limit the influence of public-sector unions, their Democratic counterparts — the near-exclusive beneficiaries of union largesse — are looking to expand it.

In Connecticut and Minnesota, the 2010 gubernatorial elections saw outgoing GOP governors succeeded by labor-backed Democrats. Naturally, the victors in both states — Dan Malloy (Conn.) and Mark Dayton (Minn.) — have made union recompense a priority in their first year in office. Both have recently issued executive orders seeking to categorize home-based child-care providers as “government employees,” thus making them eligible for unionization and, more importantly, susceptible to union dues.

Because most private child-care providers, even those who operate out of their homes, receive some form of state assistance, through subsidies or other payments, public-sector unions and their Democratic allies have argued that such individuals are, in effect, “employed” by the state. Designating them as such would qualify them for union representation by groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which could then appropriate a portion of those government subsidies as “dues.” The inevitable consequence of the policy would be to significantly increase child-care costs, as the unions extract generous concessions through collective bargaining and providers simply pass on the costs of dues to their customers.

When Republicans decry the innately corrupt relationship between public-sector unions and Democratic politicians — the unions spend heavily to elect Democrats, who are then charged with “negotiating” the salaries, pensions, and myriad other benefits of their political benefactors — this is precisely what they are talking about.

In Connecticut, Malloy went one step further, issuing a second executive order that would facilitate the unionization of personal health-care attendants — individuals who provide state-subsidized in-home care to seniors and people with disabilities — creating yet another source of revenue for groups like SEIU. The Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported recently on the absurd consequences of a similar scheme enacted by then-governor Jennifer Granholm (D., Mich.) in 2006:

Robert Haynes and his wife, Patricia, take care of their cerebral palsy-stricken son and daughter in their Macomb Township home. Taxpayers help out with monthly checks to the Haynes family. The checks, which are sent by the state, allow them to keep their son and daughter at home instead of having them institutionalized.

But some of the taxpayer dollars that are supposed to go to the Haynes family are being siphoned off. The state takes a $30 monthly deduction from the checks and sends it to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This deduction is the result of the forced unionization of home health care workers that came about in a deal between unions and politicians in Lansing.

While in office, Granholm was also successful in forcing union representation on home child-care providers, though current governor Rick Snyder (R.) has since done away with the policy. However, SEIU continues to rake in about $6 million each year in “dues” from “state employees” like the Hayes family. Apparently, the labor group remains a seductive and influential benefactor even for the Republican state lawmakers who control the legislature.

More than a dozen states currently allow unions to collect dues from home-based health-care or child-care providers. Wisconsin used to, for example, until those policies were repealed as part of Governor Walker’s budget-reform bill. It’s no surprise that Democrats would seek to enact similar policies in their states. But in some cases, Democratic governors have been forced to confront the reality of the fiscally untenable alliance between their party and public-sector unions.

In October, California governor Jerry Brown (D.) astonished many by vetoing a bill that would have allowed for the unionization of some 40,000 home child-care providers, citing the state’s “huge budget challenges.” The bill was co-sponsored by SEIU, which reportedly spent $5 million to help Brown defeat Republican Meg Whitman in 2010. The union, of course, was “profoundly devastated” by the veto.

Brown, however, is an outlier. (On a not unrelated note, he is also confronted with perhaps the worst state budget crisis in the country.) While Democrats have criticized the “extreme” tactics that Republicans like Scott Walker have employed to push through their reform agendas, their colleagues are being just as bold in their efforts to appease public-sector unions. Granholm enacted her “forced unionization” policies using an obscure extra-legislative mechanism known as an “interlocal agreement.” Malloy issued his executive order after similar legislation ran into opposition in the Democrat-controlled legislature, and he is currently fighting to overcome opposition from disability-rights advocacy groups, which represent the very people Malloy claims his new policies are designed to benefit.

As much as Democrats revere Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his role in creating the modern welfare state, they conveniently ignore his perceptive admonition regarding the inherently corrupting nature of public-sector unions: “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” It has taken near-bankruptcy for states like California to realize this simple fact. It is unfortunate that for Democrats in other states, that reality has yet to sink in.

— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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