The Corner

Unions: America’s Biggest Political Donors

There’s been a series of good articles this week providing ample evidence that, for the most part, unions’ main goal is to promote the survival of unions themselves rather than the interests of working-class Americans.

Take this weekend interview in the Wall Street Journal of Eva Moskowitz, a “Democrat and educational-reform champion who runs the city’s largest charter network.” As it turns out, Ms. Moskowitz has become Enemy No. 1 of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the teachers’ unions. Why?

Because she’s New York’s most vocal advocate of charter schools and a hero to thousands of lower-income parents in the city. The track record of the 6,700 students of modest means who attend her network of mostly non-unionized 22 schools speaks for itself:

As she reminds every audience, the 6,700 students at her 22 Success Academy Charter Schools are overwhelmingly from poor, minority families and scored in the top 1% in math and top 7% in English on the most recent state test. Four in five charters in the city outperformed comparable schools.

“We think one of the sins of American education is intellectually underestimating children,” she says. “It’s so much more engaging for kids when they’re challenged.” Her other complaint about many traditional schools: “It’s incredibly boring.” While those public schools don’t have her flexibility to design a curriculum and hire and fire teachers, “engagement doesn’t cost any money. It can be done tomorrow if the adults decide that boredom is not acceptable and you embrace a curriculum that’s interesting and rigorous.”

Such astringent assessments of public education-as-usual are fighting words in New York and other cities where schools find themselves struggling to explain chronic underperformance.

You would think that the political class would be ecstatic. But you’d be wrong. Instead, the new mayor of New York is doing everything he can to shut her down, showing that he’s more interested in serving the teachers’ union than helping the poor kids of New York:

Mr. de Blasio explicitly campaigned last year against charters—and against Ms. Moskowitz in particular. In May at a forum hosted by the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, the potent government-employee local: “It’s time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. . . . She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.” In July, on his plans to charge charters—which are independently run public schools—for sharing space with city-run public schools: “There’s no way in hell Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, O.K.?” …

In the six weeks since taking office, Mr. de Blasio has energetically begun to make good on his campaign promises. He cut all funding for charter-school construction after 2015. He announced a “moratorium” on putting new charters inside existing schools. He is considering ways to roll back 25 co-locations already approved for the next school year, including 10 Success Academies.

The Economist has more:

But New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, a union-backed Democrat, wants to hobble charters. First, he intends to curb their growth. On January 31st Carmen Fariña, his schools chancellor, announced a plan to divert $210m earmarked for charter schools to help pay for pre-kindergarten teaching. She also announced that, in future, every expansion plan will be reviewed—even those that are long settled, such as the plan of Success Academies, with the largest network in the city, to open ten more schools in August.

Mr de Blasio wants to charge charters rent if they are sharing space with the 1.1m pupils in district schools. Because charters receive no state funding for facility costs and rents in the Big Apple are so high, Michael Bloomberg, Mr de Blasio’s predecessor, allowed them free use of under-utilised space in traditional public schools. Of the 183 charters in New York City, 115 are “co-located”, sharing canteens, libraries and gyms. If they were suddenly charged rent, many would struggle. The 68 charters not sharing space with a district school have to fork out an average of $515,137 for facilities each year. The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, calculates that charging rent could force 71% of co-located charters into deficit.

Interestingly, things are different in Chicago, where the mayor Rahm Emanuel has been supportive of charter schools:

OF THE 658 schools in Chicago, only 126 are charter schools—publicly funded but independently run and largely free of union rules. Fifteen more are due to open this year. More notable, though, is that four of the most recently-approved charters are in areas where the city recently decided to close 49 public schools—the largest round of such closures in America’s history. . . . 

The Noble Network, which already runs 14 charter high schools, has just been given permission to open two new ones. Around 36% of the 9,000, mostly poor, children enrolled with Noble can expect to graduate from college, compared with 11% for this income bracket city-wide.

Emanuel is hardly alone in his affection for charter schools — according to recent polls, some 70 percent of Americans support them too.

While there is no denying that, at some point in time, private-sector unions were a balancing force in the lives of struggling lower class employees in America, public-sector unions are a whole different beast. In fact, I’m against them entirely. My main objection is that taxpayers, the people that will ultimately foot the bill for any deal between unions and lawmakers, are never at the negotiation table. While some would point out that, of course, taxpayers elect the lawmakers, citizens’ interests are poorly represented by politicians, who are often gigantic beneficiaries of union political contributions.

Over the weekend, the Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott had a great piece showing that the unions are and consistently have been biggest donors in American politics. According to OpenSecrets.org, between 1989 and 2014:

Six of the top 10 [donors in American politics] are . . . wait for it . . . unions. They gave more than $278 million, with most of it going to Democrats.

These are familiar names: AFSCME ($60.6 million), NEA ($53.5 million), IBEW ($44.4 million), UAW ($41.6 million), Carpenters & Joiners ($39.2 million) and SEIU ($38.3 million).

In other words, the six biggest union donors in American politics gave 15 times more to mostly Democrats than the Evil Koch Bros.

This story is repeated at the state and local levels, with the result being that the lower ranks of bureaucrats are often compensated much better than their private-sector counterparts. (For more on this topic, I recommend my colleague Eileen Norcross’s paper from a few years ago, which reviews the academic literature about public-sector unionism and its impact on wages, benefits, and state and local budgets.)

Unfortunately, public-sector unions are thriving – especially compared with private-sector unions. According to a recent BLS report about public and private sector union membership in 2013:

  • “Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.3 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.7 percent).”
  • “Within the public sector, the union membership rate was highest for local government (40.8 percent), which includes employees in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters.”

It’s time to dismantle public-sector unions and to hold lawmakers accountable for the bad decisions they make to placate or please their union donors.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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