Public-sector unions have long been some of America’s biggest funders of progressive political causes and candidates. So it’s no surprise that union officials have called for tax hikes this year in states like New York and Illinois and cheered President Joe Biden’s pledge to roll back the Trump tax cuts. In some cases, though, they want even more: they want to radically change the tax structure by imposing a progressive income tax in states that currently levy a flat rate.
But are union officials practicing the progressivism they’re preaching? When it comes to what they charge their own members, the answer is no.
In Pennsylvania, for example, union officials are saying one thing and doing another. Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf called for a $4 billion income tax increase as part of his proposed state budget. His plan — which represents the largest tax hike in state history — contains a legally dubious attempt to skirt the state’s constitutionally mandated uniform tax rate and tax higher income earners at a higher rate.
Meanwhile, Wolf released a list of people and organizations who support his plan. More than half of the names on the list are union officials — including Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey — or organizations directly supported by unions.
In an email to union members, Askey explained his support for Wolf’s budget. “While it is not perfect (no school funding proposal is), the governor’s budget proposal is clearly rooted in the equity and adequacy principles that PSEA has championed for a long time,” he wrote.
But while advocating to replace Pennsylvania’s flat income tax rate with a progressive tax structure under the guise of “equity,” the union and its affiliates charge teachers the same flat fee of $753 a year, plus local dues, regardless of salary. That means lower-paid teachers send a higher percentage of their earnings to the union.
Like in Pennsylvania, unions in Massachusetts and Illinois have led the charge against a single income tax rate, arguing that higher-paid individuals should pay more in taxes.
The Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank, examined union support for a graduated income tax in the state. Their study found that the Massachusetts Teachers Association was the largest single contributor in support of an initiative to replace the state’s flat tax, while the union itself demanded a larger percentage of salary from lower-paid teachers than higher-paid teachers. So much more, the study says, that new teachers have more than double the proportionate dues burden than the highest-paid teachers.
In states that already levy a progressive income tax, union officials still ignore members’ salaries when calculating dues payments.
The New York State United Teachers, for example, ran ads this year supporting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to raise taxes on wealthier residents. But the union and its affiliates charge teachers a flat fee of $613, plus local dues, and that fee stays the same whether a teacher earns $35,000 or $120,000 per year.
The Yankee Institute in Connecticut also found that the state’s public-sector unions lobby year after year for tax increases on upper-income individuals while charging their members a flat rate. Some unions even cap annual dues, meaning members pay the union a smaller percentage of salary as they earn more. This regressive dues structure is the very opposite of what union officials are pushing on taxpayers.
Union officials are at least consistent in how they use their members’ money. They have a special interest in promoting higher taxes and growing the size of government, which in turn boosts their membership and revenue. And they aren’t shy about investing in their political agenda.
In 2020 alone, public-sector unions donated $79 million to candidates, parties, or outside groups, according to OpenSecrets.org. Unions also spend significant sums on lobbying at the state, local, and national level, including their fight for tax increases.
As more union money is funneled into pushing “progressive” income taxes in states like Pennsylvania, voters and policymakers should consider why union officials aren’t willing to try a taste of their own medicine.
David R. Osborne is an attorney and CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees.