Union power is in terminal decline. In the 1950s 35 percent of American workers belonged to labor unions. This fell to 20.1 percent in 1983 and 11.3 percent in 2013. Between 1983 and 2013, union membership fell from 17.7 to 14.5 million while the population of the United States grew from 233.79 million to 316.99 million. New firms such as Microsoft and Google, and growing firms such as Wal-Mart and Apple, are not unionized. Old companies in old industries like General Motors are, though membership in the United Auto Workers has declined from 1.5 million in 1979 to 390,000 today. The ranks of the United Mine Workers of America have atrophied from nearly half a million in 1946 to 74,577 in 2013.
Labor unions are the single most powerful force in the United States. Twelve of the top twenty political spenders from 1989 to 2013 were unions. They control billion-dollar pension schemes for “their” workers. Just to posit a hypothetical: If union dues average $500 a year, the 14.3 million union members create a $7.15 billion slush fund annually; if 20 percent of that finds its way into politics—paying for get-out-the-vote efforts, community organizing, and the like—that would mean the unions spend $1.43 billion on politics each year. The Republican National Committee, by comparison, spent $378.8 million in 2012. The Democratic National Committee spent $255.1 million in the same year. The annual budget of the National Rifle Association is approximately $250 million.
Both of the above statements are accurate. Unions are in decline, yet they are still the most that powerful political structure in the United States and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But much has changed. As unions have been beaten back from corporate America they have moved to organize the public sector, just as a parasite moves from a weakened host to a healthy new victim. In 1959 Wisconsin became the first state to allow unionization of government workers. Now public sector unions exist in all fifty states, and 35 percent of America’s nineteen million federal, state and local government workers are unionized. Moving into the government sector has several advantages. While businessmen must either keep costs in line or lose customers and eventually go bankrupt, cities and states do not face such direct competition. They simply raise taxes, or borrow, or both to pay for the demands of labor unions. Unions then discovered that in the public sphere they could actually elect their employers. When wages, benefits, and pensions were negotiated the union bosses sat across the table from politicians indebted to them for union financial and political support. Not at the table: taxpayers who would pay for the agreement.
Yes, over time taxpayers have moved from Detroit to Dallas. But it took sixty years for Detroit to decline in population from 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 in 2010. The politicians responsible for union carveouts of decades ago are now retired or dead.
The politics involved appeared clear and fixed. Labor unions were doomed to decline in real numbers and as a percentage of the private sector workforce while maintaining their strong numbers in the public sector. Growth would flow from increases in the number of government workers. Hence Clinton’s and then Obama’s push to nationalize the health care industry and the $800 billion stimulus that was largely a subsidy for state and local government employment. Today, the Left’s drive toward government-run pre-kindergarten has nothing to do with education and everything to with creating more union jobs—which is to say, more dues-payers—in the form of teachers.
Obama was elected president in 2008 with overwhelming Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. Democrats could repay the labor unions not simply by funding state and local government employment, but by changing the rules so that unions could force more Americans to join up. Obama promised to pass so-called “card check” legislation that would have eliminated pesky elections by workers. Under such rules if a union claims signatures from 51 percent of workers it can force itself on every single employee. Obama foolishly wasted all his political capital on Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. He lost his sixty votes in the Senate and card check died. Obama and the unions moved to plan B: stack the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
On January 4, 2012, Obama announced that he was making “recess appointments” of three labor union activists and two Republicans, guaranteeing union control of the NLRB. A classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Later the D.C. circuit court ruled that the Senate was not in recess and the appointments were not legal. This argument continues in the Supreme Court. Later, in July 2013, the Senate agreed to give Obama a different three-two majority on the NLRB in return for Democrats’ backing down—temporarily it turned out—from ending filibuster protection for nominations. Now Obama owns the judge and jury in most union cases.
The unions, taking advantage of having the umpire in their pocket, are making an aggressive drive into the South with the tacit encouragement of Obama’s NLRB. They have drawn blood. In 2013, Tennessee has had the fastest rate of growth in union membership of all fifty states, adding 31,000 members to their ranks, a 25 percent jump. Georgia added 38,000 union members and Alabama 37,000. Nine of fourteen southern and border states saw union membership increase as a percentage of the workforce in 2013.
The latest example of this southern push is the United Auto Workers’ recent $5 million, two-year drive to unionize the 1,500 eligible auto workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. VW was pressured by its German union IG Metall to keep any voices against unionization from being heard at the plant. UAW members paraded up and down the assembly line in (no joke) black shirts and led workers off to be educated in various rooms. Still, at 10 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, the union and VW announced that the workers had voted down the UAW 712 to 626.
The UAW was stunned. They had been out-maneuvered by a massive anti-union mobilization. VW workers moved heaven and earth to share with their co-workers the dangers of UAW representation, in spite of the collusion between the union and the company to stifle their voices. The Center for Worker Freedom, a new special project of Americans for Tax Reform, which I head, launched a massive public awareness campaign, plastering the billboards, op-ed pages, and airwaves of southeastern Tennessee with information about the union’s role in the demise of Detroit, as well as the details of its openly progressive political agenda.
The community recoiled in horror, and the workers at the plant got the message: The UAW is bad for business, and bad for politics. They voted accordingly.
The union, to no one’s surprise, is crying foul, petitioning Obama’s NLRB to set the vote aside because, they claim, the election was poisoned by outside influence. They may succeed. At the very least, they will try to unionize the plant again as soon as is legally possible for them to do so.
George Will called this union vote in Chattanooga the most important election that will take place in 2014. The unions and the Democrats lost. Now the union drive on the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, will face stronger opposition from workers themselves and the surrounding communities. Unions will continue to press into less unionized states with Obama’s NLRB riding shotgun. But losing the battle of Chattanooga will slow the unions down.
And Republicans who once thought they could never do anything about high rates of unionization in the public sector learned from Governor Chris Christie that one can fight union leaders without being tarred as anti-teacher or anti-education. Scott Walker took that a step further (with help from a Republican-controlled state House and Senate) and changed labor laws to prevent union dues from being automatically withheld by schools or state and local governments. Tens of thousands of public workers faced for the first time with the choice of paying dues or keeping their paychecks whole took the latter option, defunded the unions—and by extension the Democratic Party—to the tune of millions of dollars. Wisconsin, Idaho, and Florida have all eliminated tenure for teachers. Alabama has forbidden schools from withholding annual PAC contributions of $36 from all 100,000 or so members of the teachers’ union.
Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature in 24 states that contain half the nation’s population. There they can change the rules that force workers to join unions, pay dues, and have their pockets picked to fund the modern Democratic party.
The playing field has flipped. Republicans control the machinery of government in twenty-four states containing half the nation’s population. The Democratic Party’s ability to finance itself through forced dues is now at stake. It is an old political fight in America, but the correlation of forces is quite different this time. And if the Battle of Chattanooga showed anything, it’s that a powerful union, even with millions of dollars at its disposal and both the company and the government in its pocket can still suffer defeat at the hands of its old nemesis:
The informed voter.