SHIFT Guest Opinion – Common Sense from Seattle
The liberal new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, has received an outpouring of national media attention for being at the leading edge of pushing the Democrat Party further to the left. His “tax-the-rich” approach is a welcome relief to the New York Times editorial page, if not all of the folks with jobs in the city (like on Wall Street) who read that paper.
Yet outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has received much less attention for a far more radical (for a Democrat) approach he took last month in his final speech as elected leader of the nation’s largest city. He described how the “labor-electoral complex” allows union executives to work behind the scenes, mostly through closed-door collective bargaining, to drive up costs and secure financial benefits for themselves paid out of the public treasury.
The union’s strategy is simple: provide campaign money and pay on-the-street activists to get a political ally – almost always a Democrat – elected to public office. Later, seek higher wages and other costly benefits from that same elected official in secret collective bargaining talks. Of course, any increases in public payrolls directly augment union bank accounts through higher mandatory dues. Increases in dues in turn allow union executives to reward cooperative Democrats with campaign contributions at the next election, money conveniently provided by taxpayers, of course.
It’s a vicious circle which Bllomberg fought first-hand in New York, and which he sees a real threat to the budgets of our nation’s cities.
Bloomberg has shown real courage in standing up to his city’s powerful public-sector unions. Out of concern for the public interest, Bloomberg said he would not support pay raises unless union executives agreed to help achieve savings on rising benefit costs. He noted that 38 local governments have filed for bankruptcy since 2010, largely due to rising pension costs. New York unions, however, flatly rejected the idea of helping reduce the financial burden the city imposes on its taxpayers, and thus ended up with no contracts at all.
Some states have broken the labor-electoral cycle by protecting the right of public-sector workers to leave the union and still keep their jobs. Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin are the latest states to provide right-to-work protection to their employees.
Union executives are right to fear the idea of giving workers the freedom to quit the union and keep their jobs. When Wisconsin lawmakers passed Act 10, extending right-to-work protection to most state employees, union membership (and the dollars union executives collect) plummeted. The Wisconsin teachers’ union spent $2.1 million on lobbying in 2011. That figure fell to $84,000 after Act 10 passed. The once-powerful Wisconsin AFSCME Council 11 spent $1.2 million on lobbying in 2011, a figure that fell by 90% after passage of Act 10.
Bloomberg said his successor Mr. de Blasio has a once-in-a-generation opportunity, because all labor contracts are up at once, to negotiate reforms and get rising costs under control. Observers are skeptical, however, about de Blasio’s ability to engage in tough negotiations with union executives. Collective bargaining talks take place in secret, and unions were a key financial resource in getting de Blasio – a labor friend since managing Hillary Clinton’s first U.S. Senate campaign – elected in the first place.
That puts New York City taxpayers in a bind. People may want their elected leaders to control costs, but the labor-electoral complex creates a conflict of interest for Democrats. How can they fairly represent the interests of the people when their own financial and political interests depend so much on keeping union executives happy? Their usual solution is to quietly give union executives what they want, then hope people don’t notice or don’t find out.
Let’s hope that the fawning national press that Mr. de Blasio enjoys right now has the courage to cover this story as it unfolds.