Government Unions Steal Worker Freedom

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

By Cara Dochat and Priya Abraham

Imagine a lobbying firm with immense power over your government. This organization influences how much the government pays employees, shapes legislation and regulation, and dictates how much citizens will pay in taxes.
At the same time, these lobbyists have been so good at what they do, they have convinced the government to collect their revenue, take money out of state workers’ paychecks against their will to fund the lobbying firm, pad their executives’ pockets, and bankroll the firm’s political endeavors.

Sound ludicrous? Welcome to the world of Pennsylvania’s government unions.
Pennsylvania is one of 28 states in which workers can be compelled to give part of their paycheck to a union just to keep their job. Moreover, even non-membership is costly. Those able to evade union coercion are still compelled to pay hundreds of dollars in fair share fees, or agency fees, to cover their supposed share of benefits gained from collective bargaining.

In contrast, right-to-work states give employees the freedom to choose whether or not to give a portion of their paycheck to a union. A recent poll commissioned by the Manhattan Institute finds that 72 percent of Pennsylvania voters support joining the other 22 right-to-work states.

In total, the commonwealth withheld and paid more than $33 million in dues and more than $7 million in fair share fees to 19 unions representing public employees in 2010. In most cases, the state also collects contributions for union political action committees (PACs) from workers’ paychecks at taxpayer expense. These PAC contributions are used to directly fund candidates for political office.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, siphoned more than $55 million from the wallets of its 191,000 members and 5,600 agency-fee payers.

But if that weren’t enough, more than $2.5 million of that revenue paid for political fundraising, a gubernatorial debate video, election-related robocalls, lobbying, and other political activity. Union officials also made a $30,000 contribution to the left-leaning Keystone Research Center and gave $7,500 to Keystone Progress, a progressive advocacy organization, all with member dues, much of that collected by taxpayer-funded school district employees who deducted these payments using taxpayer-funded resources and time.
Sadly, a number of members and fee-payers would gladly keep their money if given the choice. But between state and national dues, full-time PSEA members owe almost $600 a year, and non-members more than two-thirds that, which may be used to support candidates and positions they oppose.

Union power also means union bosses clean up with hefty salaries, junkets to places like Seven Springs Mountain Ski Resort, and generous benefits—at the expense of the ordinary union members they are meant to protect. James Testerman, PSEA’s president, received $253,000 in total compensation in 2010. His salary was more than 2 1/2 times the average PSEA member salary. David Fillman, executive director at AFSCME Council 13, which represents public employees in state and local governments, made $206,000 in total compensation. In contrast, the average AFSCME 13 union member makes less than $40,000 a year. Leading the pack of well-padded union bosses is Wendell Young, IV, who represents liquor store clerks at UFCW 1776. He made $269,000 in 2010—equal to the salaries of nine UFCW members combined.

Furthermore, union policy goals are rarely in the best interest of their members. The PSEA endorses "last in-first out" policies, which require districts to lay off the most recently hired teachers first. That is, the longest serving union members keep their jobs regardless of performance while the "teacher of the year" would be let go if he has less seniority. The PSEA also lobbies against merit pay for teachers—which could reward effectiveness—to the detriment of good teachers and, more importantly, students. Union lobbying prevents good teachers from getting raises and bonuses.

The right to association is protected by the First Amendment and can be beneficial for employees. But the structure of the public sector lacks the market forces necessary to curb public unions’ outrageous demands at the bargaining table. While private sector unions have to compete over businesses’ limited profits, public sector unions compete unfairly over citizens’ tax dollars. The result is a union stranglehold over government and, essentially, taxpayers.

As Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in 1786, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical." If that’s true, then Pennsylvania should ban government-aided dues deductions and PAC donation deductions, giving workers a say on whether or not to join a union and the right to choose where their money goes. Only then will workers enjoy genuine freedom over their working lives and conditions.

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Editor’s Note: For a related PolicyPoints on Pennsylvania’s Government Unions, click here.
Cara Dochat is a research fellow and Priya Abraham a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation,, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.

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