A quaint 19th-century town, streets lined with Victorian homes and parks. An isolated community, yet close to the bustling city. It had been a model company town, Pullman, Illinois, but in 1893, it was at the heart of the nationwide railroad union strike featuring violence and vandalism ending with military intervention.
Unfortunately, those turbulent times in Pullman, and throughout America, in the late 19th century may revisit us soon. But this time, it won’t be because labor unions rail against a corporation; it will come through a “strike” against the American taxpayers, like in Wisconsin just last year.
Today, organized labor is a shell of its former self — at least in the private sector. Total union membership across the country has declined to the lowest level since World War II. In Pennsylvania, unionization rates fell by nearly 40 percent between 1983 and 2012. The loss of more than 460,000 union members over this period occurred while Pennsylvania added more than 1 million employees.
But for those who see this as a sign for celebration — that workers no longer see the need for unions in the workplace — a far more destructive threat to Pennsylvania still lingers.
It’s found in the government sector, where unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Service Employees International Union have actually increased their grip on public employees’ paychecks and those of the taxpayers who fund them.
Thanks to legislatively provided privileges that allow unions to force dues and fee payments from workers as a condition of employment, nearly 55 percent of all state and local government employees are in a labor union — a share that has crept up even as private union membership dropped dramatically. Meanwhile in the private sector, only 7.8 percent of employees are in a union.
Unfortunately, what was once hailed as a mechanism to ensure fairness in pay and benefits for government labor has become a weapon of inequity that hurts both the workers it intended to protect and the taxpayers who wished to protect them. When government unions gained collective bargaining in the late 1950s — something President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the AFL-CIO once ardently opposed — they received the ability to negotiate with the very politicians they help hire and fire. The game now turned to a clear conflict of interest where government unions support candidates, then lobby those same politicians to raise taxes, increase debt and spend more taxpayer money. Union bosses benefit when government grows bigger.
Naively, one might think a Pennsylvania with the most conservative governor and biggest Republican House and Senate majorities in modern state history would be different in 2013. While it is true that they have reversed some poor policies, they are neither showing the guts nor earning the glory of their colleagues in other states who are taking on budget-busting programs and winning.
The reason is clear: It is not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party that wields a legislative majority in Pennsylvania, it is the Big Government Party.
Comprising the government employee unions, private sector unions, trial lawyers, extreme greens, and other nonprofits that feed off taxpayer money, the Big Government Party is aligned for a single purpose: To use the American political system to extract the greatest amount of income and wealth as possible for the benefit of but a few.
In essence, behind every government program today, you will find the Big Government Party defending unsustainable spending and lobbying to increase it. With politicians enabled by government union funding that fights against even the most modest changes to budget-busting programs like defined-benefit public pensions and prevailing wage, voters can start to understand why no-brainers like ending Pennsylvania’s Prohibition-era, government-run wine and liquor stores have been thwarted.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, government union political action committees doled out significant cash to both Democrats and Republicans alike in Pennsylvania. Between 2004 and mid-2012, six major government union political action committees contributed nearly $12 million in total. Compare this to the meager $7.6 million spent by their Texas counterparts — a state with more than double our population.
Quite simply, there’s a lot of money in politics because it is politicians that determine who gets your money. But if we’re to veer clear of the financial cliff the Big Government Party is taking us over, the Taxpayer Party — blue and white collar workers joined by their families and entrepreneurs that refuse government handouts — must become the majority party in Pennsylvania once again.
Matthew J. Brouillette is president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives. He is a prominent voice in statewide public policy debates through frequent appearances in print, television, and talk radio across the Commonwealth. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.