Labor Day is a holiday conceived of and created by the American labor movement. Its purpose is to celebrate the achievements of America’s unionized workforce. And, boy, do unions have a lot to celebrate this year in Minnesota.
The state is once again an outlier, though not in a way that will land Gov. Mark Dayton on the cover of Time magazine. This legislative session gave Minnesota the dubious distinction of enacting the “largest expansion of collective bargaining rights in a generation,” according to the head of AFSCME Council 5.
While nearly half the states allow voluntary union membership, the legislative majorities at the Minnesota Capitol bucked that trend and acceded to the demands of labor bosses who saw a way to potentially add nearly 20,000 new members to their unions. They will do this through a rigged election that precedes compulsory unionization for home-based child-care providers and personal-care attendants — an alarming power grab by two of the largest unions in the state.
And AFSCME and SEIU weren’t the only unions popping open the champagne. Teachers’ union Education Minnesota applauded House and Senate leaders for “delivering” on their “promise of [an] education session.” Apparently “education session” is union code talk for more taxpayer money and much less accountability.
Education Minnesota’s legislative goals included all-day, every-day kindergarten; increases in the basic per-pupil formula; increases in special-education funding; increases in higher-education funding, and delays in the implementation of the mandatory teacher development and evaluation laws. While this may sound admirable at first blush, it’s important to note that, before this session, Minnesota schools were already very well-funded. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the state spends $70 per pupil more than the national average. As such, its spending on classroom instruction earns an enviable rank of 17th in the nation. When you combine federal, state and local funding sources, public schools in this state spend more than $10 billion annually. Every two years, K-12 spending requires nearly half of our ever-expanding state budget.
Today in Minnesota, government unions have become a political ATM, because union leaders have an inherent interest in supporting the party that expands government and thereby government union membership. And they do this by forcibly extracting dues and membership from workers who often disagree with their political agendas. This coercion isn’t new: President Bill Clinton’s first labor secretary, Robert Reich, said in a 1985 Associated Press interview that unions need coercion: “In order to maintain themselves, unions have got to have some ability to strap their members to the mast.”
The argument for government unions isn’t moral, economic or intellectual; it’s political. And the cycle is simple: Taxes are collected from citizens to pay for government; government compensates its unionized employees; government unions collect mandatory dues from their members; government unions spend those dues to elect or influence those politicians who favor expanding government and increasing taxes to pay for a higher number unionized government employees and for more generous compensation packages.
It’s easy to see how much influence public-sector unions have today in our elections: From 2004 to 2012, state and local affiliates of Education Minnesota, AFSCME Minnesota Council 5 and the Service Employees Minnesota State Council contributed more than $3.6 million to DFL candidates. One hundred percent of SEIU’s contributions went to DFL candidates. Considering the fact that Education Minnesota’s PAC contributed $647,916 to DFL candidates and $4,325 (or 0.05 percent) to Republican candidates in the last election cycle, I’d say the unions get a pretty good return on their investment.
It isn’t often that someone within the system exposes the “chokehold” that government unions have on elected officials, but Gloria Romero — former Democratic majority leader in the California Senate — dared to take on the special interests that she says “are where the real power lies.” She correctly asserts that union leaders won’t give up this power without a mighty fight.
Romero recently said that the “answer is not to ban unions but to empower members to gain freedom in choosing how their own political dues are spent. Presently, union members are disdainfully treated as automatic debit cards by their own executive boards — fearful that increased democratization within the ranks will topple them.”
Dayton recently announced that he’s seeking government reform ideas for the upcoming legislative session. Looking ahead on this Labor Day, I suggest that legislative leaders admit where true political power lies in Minnesota and wrestle back control for citizens.
Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.