INTERVIEW: Author Mallory Factor Lifts the Lid on Government Unions
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Free Enterprise: What inspired you to write a book about government employee unions?
Factor: For years, I have written and spoken about how government restrains American businesses — through excessive regulation and restrictions, heavy tax burdens, and other anti-business policies. I always have tried to understand why government creates an environment hostile to business when the private sector drives our economy, creates jobs, and increases our prosperity. What I discovered is that the government employee unions fuel government growth and regulation — in Congress, in our statehouses, in our city councils, and on our school boards. Government employee unions elect politicians who give them more government employees to unionize. More government employees and higher government salaries grows union dues. But it also mean higher taxes on businesses and individuals. That is not all there is to it, but that is certainly a big part of the story.
Q: To what extent are government workers unionized?
A: Of the 20.5 million people who work for the government, 41 percent were represented by a union in 2011. In the private sector, only 7.6 percent were represented by a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Government workers are more than five times as unionized as private employees. But the rate of unionization varies by state and by profession. In 20 states, less than 20 percent of government employees are union members; but in 15 states, more than 50 percent are union members. Teachers, firemen, police, and postal workers are among the most unionized government employees. But government unions now represent almost every type of government worker, including federal border control agents, civilian employees in the military, office workers in state and local government, university professors, and graduate student assistants in state universities.
Government is a growth area for unions, compared with the private sector. The U.S. Post Office is twice as unionized as the entire domestic auto industry, according to the Heritage Foundation.
Q: How do government unions behave differently than private sector unions?
A: Unlike private-sector unions, the newer government unions use their political spending to help elect and re-elect politicians who will enact pro-union policies. Politicians can help government unions in two ways: First, politicians can grant government employees higher salaries, benefits, and pensions, improved working conditions, and longer breaks, sick days, and vacations. Second, politicians can give unions more government employees to unionize, increasing their dues income — improving the unions’ bottom line. The unions themselves call this “electing their own bosses.” Political spending does not directly benefit private-sector unions in this way. So, they do not spend nearly as much on politics.
Most private-sector unions have morphed into hybrid private-public unions in order to survive. It’s not your father’s union anymore. The United Auto Workers (UAW) represents those who build cars, but they also represent 50,000 government employees — including firefighters, zookeepers, and academics at public universities. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents transportation workers, but they also represent 200,000 government employees including police officers, parole officers, and transit workers. Private- sector unions have found their new growth niche: government employees.
Q: What is the threat to private-sector employers from the rise of government-employee unions?
A: Government-employee unions that represent both public- and private-sector employees — including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the UAW, and many others — use compulsory dues collected from government employees to finance union-organizing campaigns in private workplaces. This growing trend seriously should concern any private employer that is not currently unionized. These hybrid unions also use mandatory dues revenues to elect politicians who support their pro-union agenda, but also support anti-business legislation and regulation. We have found, for example, that the top union-funded senators and congressmen have terrible records on issues vital to small business and the U.S. Chamber. Unions elect politicians who simply make it harder for Americans to launch, build, and grow businesses.
Q: What impact do government unions have on politics and policy?
A: Government employee unions have a huge impact on politics because they spend about 20 percent of their dues income on political activity—to elect pro-union politicians and promote their policies and agenda in Congress and state houses across America. What business spends 20 percent of its revenues on politics? These unions are America’s most effective group in electing politicians who consistently vote their way on their issues. The unions have nurtured a political machine to support pro-union candidates and hold them accountable — all year long, not just at election time.
Q: In researching your book, what did you learn about government unions that surprised you most?
A: Many union officials complain about the money that business organizations like the U.S. Chamber spend on politics. But business groups rely on voluntary membership and donations, whereas the government employee unions can force government workers to pay union dues and fees to keep their jobs in at least 22 states and DC. The unions collect dues from the government workers and then spend that money to support pro-union politicians. These politicians, in turn, give the unions more favorable organizing laws and more government workers to unionize. This further increases the unions’ dues income. And the wheel keeps on spinning. No business organizations can — or should —compete with this circular flow of money, influence, and power. It is an enormous problem for America and the business community because government unions fuel government growth, support legislation that increases regulations on businesses, and create a hostile climate for free enterprise.