Tightening the Union Loop into a Noose
It could just be that I’m in my annual phase of presummer burnout, or it could be an indication of the complexity that Big Government imposes on a democratic society — to such degree that it ceases to be possible for the individuals who comprise that democracy to function as they must — but the number of fronts for manipulating the public sector feel like they’ve been multiplying, lately.
The issue that brings that statement to mind is the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) legislation that Democrats have brought to the table in Washington, which Bradley Smith describes, here. Given my usual areas of focus, this part earned a bracket in the margins of my issue of National Review:
DISCLOSE’s partisanship is apparent in its different treatment of corporations and unions. Every major federal campaign-finance-reform effort since 1943 has attempted to treat corporations and unions equally. If a limit applied to corporations, it applied to unions; if unions could form PACs, corporations could too; and so on. DISCLOSE is the first major campaign-finance bill that has not taken this approach. For example, it prohibits corporations with government contracts of as little as $50,000 from making independent expenditures in elections or engaging in “electioneering communications.” This very low threshold would bar not only large contractors such as Boeing but also thousands of small businesses from exercising the rights recognized in Citizens United. Yet no parallel provision exists for unions that bargain with the government for multimillion-dollar benefit packages. Corporations that received TARP funds are prohibited from spending, but unions at those companies — which in many cases benefited far more from the bailouts than shareholders — are not.
Smith doesn’t go far enough, to my mind, by raising this as a matter of teams in a partisan dispute. It’s actually part of a broad effort to shift the role of unions in our political society. Recall a post from November that noted, tangentially, that hospitals receiving federal money are barred from lobbying the government while their workers’ unions are not (see “addendum,” below). As the federal government continues to grow — especially in the amount of our economy for which it takes direct authority — the loop whereby businesses rely on the unions with which they negotiate to lobby the government will tighten into a noose, excluding organizations that are not unionized and siphoning off more money for politicians, bureaucrats, and the unions that serve as the middleman transferring economic wealth to the public sector.
I’ve said before that among the greatest advantages of blogging to a mixed audience is that one is more likely than not to have errors or inadvertent stretches corrected. In that vein, Stuart called me on the statement about hospitals receiving federal money being barred from lobbying the government. Going back to my initial citation, I see that I paraphrased the following poorly:
SEIU’s corporate campaigns, however effective, are nothing new. Stern’s real breakthrough came when he realized that labor could offer a carrot as well as a stick Around 50 percent of SEIU’s members work in the health-care industry as nurses, hospital attendants, and lab techs. The facilities that employ such workers benefit from a number of government programs. SEIU’s pitch was simple: Let us organize your workforce, and we’ll use our lobbying power to push for increased government spending on health care.
It worked. Fred Siegel and Dan DiSalvo recently observed in The Weekly Standard that, “under the brilliant leadership of Dennis Rivera, [SEIU Local] 1199 built a top-notch political operation, and with the hospitals, which were barred from political activity, formed a partnership to maximize the flow of government revenue.” The alliance has been so successful, they wrote, that New York now spends as much on Medicaid as California and Texas combined. Rivera now serves as the SEIU’s point man on national health-care-reform legislation, with over 400 union staff members working full time at his disposal. Sen. Chuck Schumer called him “one of the few key players” shaping the final bill.
In essence, I joined concepts that were only related: The union offers lobbying clout, but the political activity from which hospitals are barred probably doesn’t have to do with the federal dollars that the lobbying seeks, but rather with such things as bans on non-profit political activities. My understanding is that unions are not so restricted.
So, the statement in specific was incorrect, but the point remains valid. To the extent that government restrains the employer in political activity and speech, while leaving unions exempt from those restraints, the union and the government gain leverage versus the productive organizations.