How much do public sector unions matter politically?

by on February 27, 2018 at 12:40 am in Current Affairs, Law, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

A recent paper by Mr. Hertel-Fernandez and two colleagues may foretell what Democrats can expect if Mr. Uihlein and his fellow philanthropists succeed. It found that the Democratic share of the presidential vote dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points after the passage of so-called right-to-work laws allowing employees to avoid paying union fees. That is larger than Democrats’ margin of defeat in several states that could have reversed their last three presidential losses.

That is from Noam Scheiber and Kenneth P. Vogel at the NYT.  You may have read that “…the Supreme Court [Monday] hears a case that could cripple public-sector unions by allowing the workers they represent to avoid paying fees.”  Yet the Democratic Party seems increasingly dependent on such funds.  By the way, the cited research paper, by Feigenbaum, Hertel-Fernandez, and Williamson, also reports this:

The weakening of unions also has large downstream effects both on who runs for office and on state legislative policy. Fewer working class candidates serve in state legislatures and Congress, and state policy moves in a more conservative direction following the passage of right-to-work laws.

So the stakes here are probably high.

1 sdb February 27, 2018 at 12:58 am

So basically the only hope the Democratic Party has of remaining a viable national party is to force workers in certain industries to subsidize them. Is there anything comparable for republicans?


2 Dan L February 27, 2018 at 1:38 am

GOP political donors pursue policies that directly enrich themselves, and so get a return on their investment – just need a handful of oligarchs to make it go… that and massive government subsidies mislabeled as “tax relief”. So yeah, there are several states that are increasingly dominated by these oligarchs, net importers of government money, and (unsustainably) net exporters educators and the educated.


3 sdb February 27, 2018 at 1:50 am

Do you mean to imply that democratic politicians don’t pursue policies that financially benefit their donors? That seems unlikely to me.

Even if it is only republicans engaged in such crass behavior, who are the people forced to subsidize republicans in order to work in a particular industry?


4 Dan L February 27, 2018 at 2:54 am

Yes. Dem megadonors are known to say things like “my taxes are too low”. Sure, having your grandchildren be able to breathe clean air could be considered self-interested, but again it’s a public good.
And yes, apart from the rampant Hatch act violations of this administration, taxpayers are also subsidizing the labor costs of non-unionized workforces through SNAP (because the Walton’s are so put-upon), zero-sum corporate welfare competitions between states, and especially through prison labor arrangements.
The SCOTUS case today was remarkable – really a focused effort to make being a public employee as horrible as possible, and so “prove” government doesn’t work by intentionally impairing it’s function.


5 Thomas February 27, 2018 at 12:10 pm

“Yes. Dem megadonors are known to say things like “my taxes are too low”. ”

No, they are known to position themselves to profit in industries they support for ideological reasons.

“Hatch act violations”

This is a joke, right? You know that Joe Biden just want to have diplomatic talks with the terrorist leader of Palestine? Do you care, at all?

“taxpayers are also subsidizing the labor costs of non-unionized workforces through SNAP”

This is the traditional Democrat model: 1. Create program because you “want to help people”. 2. Complain about side effects of the program. 3. Use those complaints to create another program. repeat.

“We need wage controls because otherwise people use the program we create to help them.” Food stamps -> command economy. No thanks.

“The SCOTUS case today was remarkable – really a focused effort to make being a public employee as horrible as possible”

Is this a joke? Who are public sector unions negotiating against, exactly? Their friendly politician they donated millions to?

6 sdb February 28, 2018 at 2:28 am

So the Finance/tech/entertainment/media sectors overwhelmingly support the DNC for the Clean air act but otherwise have no self interest in their political activism? Fascinating…

7 A February 27, 2018 at 4:45 am

It’s smart to be skeptical, but there are some glaring differences between parties in matters such as the estate tax, and marginal personal and corporate tax rates.


8 Anonymous February 27, 2018 at 2:21 pm

And where do the economists line up on such matters? Isn’t the estate tax a pointless boondoggle that costs more to enforce than the revenue it generates? Hasn’t the corporate tax rate been too high for a very long time and don’t many think it should be zero?

9 bob February 27, 2018 at 2:41 pm

Estate tax collections in 2014 were 19 billion dollars.The entire IRS budget was about 12 billion dollars so I don’t think administrative costs to the IRS exceeded collections.

10 TMC February 27, 2018 at 5:47 pm

bob, only if that were the only costs associated with them.

11 So Much For Subtlety February 27, 2018 at 2:06 am

Those oligarchs sound great. Although I notice most oligarchs these days are friends of the Clintons if not Bernie. It is absurd to call leaving people alone and not taking their money as subsidy. But I suppose you have to do what you have to do.

The point is that the Left is also only interested in directly enriching themselves. The difference is that pro-Republican oligarchs are usually selling a product other people want. They are not simply mugging people legally with the help of the police. The Left is solidly entrenched in industries that have legal monopolies that people are forced to but from. Because their products are useless and no sensible man would buy them.

Let’s hope the Courts strike down all these pro-union graft laws.


12 A February 27, 2018 at 4:49 am

Incisive analysis of the business world. Left and right operating principles; so simple that it almost seems stupid, but actually it’s the very smartest!


13 Thomas February 27, 2018 at 12:16 pm

Could you address the disparate use of force in markets supported by the left and right?

14 Larry February 27, 2018 at 1:07 am

Could it be that the reversal comes because of a trend towards conservatism instead of the reverse?


15 Dzhaughn February 27, 2018 at 1:30 am

From the abstract: “Comparing counties on either side of a state and right-to-work border to causally identify the effects of the state laws, we find that right-to-work laws reduce Democratic Presidential vote shares by 3.5 percentage points.”

That’s seems like a pretty good effort to control.


16 JWatts February 27, 2018 at 2:16 pm

This could be explained by being on the different side of a political boundary. The Left will migrate to an urban county, whereas the Right will migrate to a sub-urban county. And to a lesser degree, people will tend to adopt the point of view of their in-group, which may be as broad as a State in this case. That being said 3.5% strikes me as a pretty significant number. Certainly above statistical noise.

But, I found this line far more telling: “Turnout is also 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those
laws pass. ”

This implies a direct causal effect. What’s the cause? A change in attitude or something more direct. Like no longer busing as many workers to the polling places on election days?


17 Confederate Yankee February 27, 2018 at 1:40 am

You can be forced to subsidize unions because they’re non-political organizations, but if they don’t get their dues the democrat party suffers? You wouldn’t think not paying a non-political organization would have any effect on a political party. It’s almost like the union dues go to the democrat party irregardless of what the union says.

Maybe the South was right, it’s time to break up the union.


18 Thomas February 27, 2018 at 12:20 pm

It’s like when the cut Planned Parenthood spending in Iowa and abortion access dropped. Just wait a minute, how in the world could that happen if tax dollars weren’t going to abortions? Hmm


19 clockwork_prior February 27, 2018 at 2:08 am

So, will this affect police unions? Because as we all know, some unions are more equal than others. Police officers good, classroom teachers bad is pretty much a decades long mantra for a major part of the American political spectrum.

Though who knows – these days, it is the Republicans that seem to feel that both law enforcement and counter intelligence agencies cannot be trusted, in the sort of flip that one rarely sees in such a short period of time.


20 So Much For Subtlety February 27, 2018 at 4:33 am

Yeah. If only there was some reason, some cause, for such irrational behavior by the Republicans.

It is almost as if trust has to be earned among people capable of rational thought. Every day. And as such it can be destroyed in seconds if the people asking for trust are not trustworthy.


21 clockwork_prior February 27, 2018 at 4:59 am

‘such irrational behavior by the Republicans’

What, you do not know who is president?


22 A February 27, 2018 at 5:08 am

Neither party seems interested in improving public unions. Even American socialists have been silent on the matter, despite trusting themselves with an expanding state.


23 Jack February 27, 2018 at 8:23 am

I don’t think that there is a single thing that would more effectively aid black males, the group in America that is the poorest and most subject to racism, than disbanding or seriously impairing police unions


24 chuck martel February 27, 2018 at 6:53 am

Government is a monopsony. Its employees should have to bid for their jobs annually with the low bidder getting the position. The government is buying labor, just as it buys paper, motor fuel and coffee makers for transport aircraft. The low bidder is supposed to get the business.


25 Chris February 27, 2018 at 7:50 am

Usually monopsony power is a justification for unions. In a company town the employer can pay the reservation wage. What’s the private sector wage for a social worker? But for what it’s worth, Medicare is barred from using its buying power to lower drug costs.


26 rayward February 27, 2018 at 7:27 am

In the dark ages when I studied economics as an undergraduate, the class in “labor economics” was mostly about collective bargaining and how it was conducted (based mostly on custom, but custom labor and management observed in order to maintain order and stability). Being of the South and attending a state school in the South and not knowing anyone who was a member of a union, it was all so strange since that’s not how we did things down here. Fast forward to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. I vividly recall discussing how the election would affect the South, positively being the almost unanimous consensus. And indeed it did, in part by turning the entire country into the South. So here we are in 2018: it may not be the end of men, but it’s definitely the end of unions. Down here we joke that the difference between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee is that a Yankee visits the South and then returns from whence he came, whereas a Damn Yankee visits the South and stays. What is the corresponding joke told by Yankees as a lament for the entire nation having been turned into the South: today, Yankees can visit the South without ever leaving home.


27 JWatts February 27, 2018 at 2:20 pm

Over time rayward’s posts seem to be converging with mulp’s style.


28 Sure February 27, 2018 at 8:25 am

The more I buy this sort of analysis, the more I am opposed to compulsory union fees. People should have the right to not subsidize activities that have primary effects of undercutting their vote (e.g. single issue pro-life voters should be able to take a conscious exemption to these fees). There is so much strum and drang about voter IDs imposing a small burden on a tiny fraction of voters; yet we are supposed to just assume that the 20% or whatever of involuntary “union” employees are not suffering a much higher imposition on their votes? Compulsory activity should not have Democrats getting the advantage of moving every election from Georgia to Florida.


29 BC February 27, 2018 at 8:46 am

Government passes labor laws, which protect unions, implying that part of government’s role is to protect workers. But, government workers’ employer is government itself, not some greedy private corporation, so why do government workers need unions? Their employer, government, is already expected to act in workers’ best interests. Is government labor policy not really in the best interests of workers after all or do public sector unions, by negotiating against that policy, actually act against the interests of workers?

In any event, government workers’ unions are different from private sector workers’ unions in that, when the former seek to influence the workers’ employer, they are seeking to influence government itself. Hence, all of their activities constitute political lobbying and, thus, government union dues would seem to be political contributions.


30 BC February 27, 2018 at 9:11 am

For example, when a government union “collectively bargains” for higher pay, they are unavoidably lobbying to change government spending policy in a direction that is in their members’ best interests. So, how are government unions different from any other special interest lobbying group? We could just as easily say that the NRA “collectively bargains” for their members’ gun rights. Does that mean that all of us should be compelled to pay NRA dues because we are “free riding” on their efforts?


31 Gil February 27, 2018 at 10:11 am

Your analogy does not work. The situations are different because nobody wants lower wages for themselves, but opinions differ on the value of, say, concealed carry.


32 Engineer February 27, 2018 at 10:22 am

BC is right.

Opinions differ on the value of higher wages and benefits, and retention/promotion by seniority vs. merit, among other benefits, for government employees. I suspect a lot of people are opposed to this special treatment, quite different from what most people experience.

Similarly, there are a lot of people who who value the right to self-defense, concealed carry, and more generally 2nd amendment rights, who don’t belong to the NRA and are in effect free riders.

It’s actually worse than that, since the government unions are are a significant degree bargaining with themselves. The NRA has no such advantage.


33 Gil February 27, 2018 at 11:46 am

“Opinions differ on the value of higher wages and benefits, and retention/promotion by seniority vs. merit, among other benefits, for government employees.”

True statement, but you missed my point.

You might think government employees should be paid less. Totally fair opinion. But no employee, regardless of employer wants to take home a smaller paycheck.

This distinction is really important when we talk about the free rider problem.

A union does not need to poll its members to find out if it should bargain for a pay increase or a pay decrease because it is obvious, nobody wants a pay decrease.

A social club probably does need to poll its members if it should donate money from a fundraiser to the NRA or someone else.

34 BC February 27, 2018 at 12:14 pm

@Gil, So should every gun owner be required to pay dues to the NRA? Should everyone in the energy industry be required to pay dues to any organization that lobbies for energy subsidies because they will all benefit from those subsidies? Of course not. Simply because an organization lobbies for some special interest benefit that will benefit everyone in a particular class is insufficient reason to require that everyone in that class join that organization.

The point is that government employees unions’ activities are lobbying, not “collective bargaining”, because government employees’ employer is government. The activities are designed to influence government policies to favor a particular special interest group, namely government employees. They are no different than activities designed to favor any other special interest group, be they gun owners, energy sector, lawyers, environmentalists, etc.

A few months ago, I pointed out that, when government employees pay income tax, that tax goes right back to their employer, the government, so they didn’t seem to be really paying tax. The tax was indistinguishable from just receiving a lower wage. (In contrast, taxes on private sector wages create a gap between what the employer pays and what the employee receives.) If government unions lobby for their members to be exempt (even nominally) from income tax, then that is clearly lobbying, not “collective bargaining”, no different from doctors lobbying to be exempt from income tax. But, in the case of government unions, lobbying to be exempt from income tax is equivalent to collectively bargaining for higher wages. Because government employees’ employer is government itself, government unions can’t limit their activities to “collective bargaining”; all of their activity must by necessity be political lobbying.

35 Your husband's cane February 27, 2018 at 12:18 pm

The free-rider argument assumes that all employees want the same outcome from their employer, and that a union’s position in bargaining with an employer is therefore one that every rational employee would support. This is the assumption that seems to underlie Gil’s statement “[N]o employee, regardless of employer[,] wants to take home a smaller paycheck”.

This assumption would be true if all that the unions were negotiating was compensation, and if compensation took the form of cash and cash alone. However, that’s not the case. Employer-employee arrangements also involve things like working conditions and benefits, and employees can reasonably differ on these.

Suppose, for instance, that the union is negotiating a contract that can go in one of two directions: a cash salary alone, with no parental-leave provision, or a somewhat smaller cash salary packaged with a certain number of paid parental-leave days. As a single child-free person who has no intention of ever procreating, I would obviously prefer the former; but most of my co-workers have spawned or intend to do so, and they’d prefer the latter arrangement. The union takes the position of the majority of its members, which is opposite to my own; and if I object to paying compulsory union dues for this, I’m condemned as a free-rider.

36 Brian Donohue February 27, 2018 at 9:32 am

The impact of public sector unions is pretty obvious in Illinois.


37 JWatts February 27, 2018 at 2:23 pm



38 Viking February 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

“Fewer working class candidates serve in state legislatures and Congress”

So that explains how the democrats are for policies that hurt the working man.


39 dfooter February 27, 2018 at 10:38 am

This is not about unionization per se, but rather whether we should have the principal party of government in many of the most populous states beholden to the people who pay the taxes and expect good services, or the people who benefit from bigger government and higher taxes. Coming from California, where the average public sector worker makes more than the average taxpaying private sector worker, where schools continue to decline despite increasing funding, where public services continue to be cut back and where the pension underfunding is reaching critical proportions, I can only say there is no rational argument for maintaining the power public sector unions have (and eventually getting rid of them). Happy that public sector unions have enabled many to gain entrance to the middle class, but not at the expense of the children and taxpayers they serve.


40 Meets February 27, 2018 at 11:14 am

Just like with the SALT deduction, this will take away an unfair advantage the Democrats have had and level the playing field

Not to mention, it will likely lead to better governance


41 TMC February 27, 2018 at 1:11 pm

With the unions giving 99% of the money to one party, you’d think this would be busted up as a money laundering scheme. Use RICO and take down both the DNC and the unions.


42 msgkings February 27, 2018 at 1:17 pm

Um, if you take down the DNC with RICO don’t you also have to take down the RNC (100% of the money to one party)?


43 TMC February 27, 2018 at 1:56 pm

The money laundering cycle is as such: Unions donate to DNC, Democrats enlarge the Federal government, Unions collect more dues, donate to DNC. No RNC involved at all.


44 JWatts February 27, 2018 at 2:25 pm

“Um, if you take down the DNC with RICO don’t you also have to take down the RNC (100% of the money to one party)?”

I don’t understand this at all. What do you mean by 100% of the money to one party? And clearly Public Unions sway heavily to the Democratic Party.


45 Cooper February 27, 2018 at 9:33 pm

Our private sector unions are too weak and our public sector unions (at least in states without RTW) are too strong.


46 chuck martel February 28, 2018 at 5:30 am

In reality, even without union affiliation, public sector employees will be well-rewarded by politicians who are buying their votes with taxpayer funds. Just the same, public employee union contracts are insanely generous, particularly in retirement benefits:


47 Willitts February 28, 2018 at 8:52 am

Public sector unions (and labor unions more generally) may not be politically successful, but they are certainly trying to be. Unions dominate political spending.

Most notably, the SEIU, NEA, AFT, and AFSCME rank near the top of the Heavy Hitters list. Their political activities have certainly been effective in local elections and in collective bargaining with government entities.


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