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The electoral clout of public employee unions

At the risk of sounding like Juan Williams,  I was rattled Friday by the sight of this data point in the Wall Street Journal: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is now the top-ranked spender on independent campaign efforts. The $87.5 million that AFSCME has devoted to commercials, phone banks and other efforts to elect the candidates it favors -- Democrats, presumably -- won't necessarily keep it atop this dubious leader board through Nov. 2. But it makes me wonder, again, whether there isn't something essentially wrong with public employees trying to handpick the people who control their pay and job security.

I feel the same unease about electioneering by government contractors. Call it my fear of the "Iron Triangle," or the symbiotic relationship between lawmakers and the public employees or contractors who benefit directly from the programs they support. Federal dollars flow out; campaign contributions flow back.

But here's where I run into a brick wall, mentally: Why should the people whose jobs depend on government sit on the sidelines while its leaders are chosen? Amid the attacks on government spending, shouldn't government employees be able to defend what they do? And why should working for the government deprive me of the right to speak?

It's hard to argue against that logic. And once you agree that AFSCME shouldn't be muzzled, I think you have to accept that the likes of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin shouldn't be either. That's one of the factors fueling the political arms race we're in today, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other advocates of smaller government feverishly raising and spending millions to counter the money raised and spent by unions and other proponents of the status quo.

Ultimately, I think the answer is to require more rapid disclosure of who's spending what to elect whom, and for people in my profession to put that information in front of voters. People care about such things; reports about the special-interest spending behind Propositions 16 and 17  helped turn California voters against them in June, in spite of their appealing descriptions. So as long as the disclosure is effective, voters should be able to recognize when they're being pushed to do something for a narrow corporate or union interest rather than their own.

Of course, if the disclosure doesn't reveal where the money is coming from,  then it isn't really effective.

-- Jon Healey





Comments () | Archives (17)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Mike Norman

This seems like a nice little package of excuses to support the Disclose Act.
On the surface your logic is reasonable, but in the case of the government employee unions it is the management of the union (Union Bosses) who are siphoning money from compulsory dues to support candidates of their choice. It is thus clearly debatable that the money represents the will of the members themselves. We already know that the union money is appropriated from member dues so the Disclose Act won’t make much difference there. And aren’t they going to be “exempted” from the Act anyway?
I don’t have a huge machine that claims to represent me. I don’t belong to AARP or any other big influence group yet I manage to make my point known through comments such as this and with every vote that I cast. I’m free to join or voluntarily contribute to anyone or any group that I wish to support. Government employees and union members of all stripes are free to do the same.
It seems to me that the Disclose Act would stifle political contributions or foster attacks by opportunistic political opponents against the contributors.
And rest easy...you don't sound like Juan Williams.


Government employees shouldn't be allowed to unionize- period. We're at a point where we negotiate with these unions with a gun to our head.

Bob Johnson

Is there anything more worthless than a public employee union?


I simply refuse to donate any money to any candidate because I do not want my money wasted on negative ads on the airwaves. I want the real issues NOT the tabloid personal attacks! The employee unions (thanks to Jerry Brown allowing them to Unionize) are bankrupting the state. More businesses and high income earners will relocate to other states and California WILL go BANKRUPT! The state is already morally bankrupt why not add financially bankrupt?

November will be either more of the same or the start of taking back the state and local government from the thieves in office!!!


Is there anything more worthless than a public employee union?

yes.... Teacher's Union.

Public Employee Union is to rip off Tax Payers.
Teacher's Union is to rip off Children.

Mitchell Young

Members of union are not a protected class, so the Juan Williams treatment is not going to happen. That is reserved for folks who question, however fleetingly, the value of 'diversity'.

However, public employees unions seems to me to be really stupid, at least politically. In California, such unions membership make up what a large part of the remaining middle class. Often they live in 'mixed' households, with the woman holding a public service sector job (nurse, teacher, social worker, corrections officer) and the man in the private sector. (Yes, I realize I am propounding gender-based stereotypes and heteronormativity, but these are my observations). So when Meg Whitman (following the Governator) makes attacking nurses or whatever a centerpiece of her campaign, she is shooting herself in the foot.

As for the 'iron triangle' -- we might end up in California with a situation like PRI-ruled Mexico. There the 'popular sector', roughly equivalent to the unionized government employees we have, was hugely influential in elections. PRI bought them off with good wages in their sector. Below there were laborers and peasants, but in California the ruling class won't have to worry too much about them as they are either ineligible to vote or low-propensity voters. And the rich, well they do okay anywhere. In fact, California's propensity towards environmental regulation and strict zoning helps keep their property values up. So it looks like a Democrat, PRI-like coalition could last quite a while here until -- only a collapse a la early 1990s Mexico could dislodge it.

Mitchell Young

"However, public employees unions seems to me to be really stupid" --> However, attacking public employees unions seems to me to be really stupid.

Micheal Mulvaney

Mr. Healy, when you say "I don't want to sound like Juan Williams" what exactly do you mean?

When you say "I run into a brick wall, mentally", I think you should have stopped there.

That being said, you may have lead your opinion piece with that and it would have made much more sense to me.

Jon Healey

@Michael -- The reference to Juan Williams was to invoke the image of a visceral reaction that, on further reflection, is hard to defend. Williams said he sees people who appear to be Muslims boarding his flight and he gets a frisson of anxiety. I had a similar reaction to seeing AFSCME atop the independent expenditures list. The point of the post was to discuss why it's tempting to want to muzzle public employees and contractors, but why it's also, well, un-American.

Jon Healey

@Mike -- The point of a good disclosure law would be to reveal which *interests* are trying to buy elections. The problem today is that ads tell voters only the name of the groups that finance them. Saying an ad is financed by "Crossroads GPS" or "American Project Action Fund" says nothing at all about the interests behind the ad. On the other hand, saying an ad is funded by the Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality PAC gives viewers a pretty good signal about the interests involved.

Frank Stephens

With government worker unionization we are financing our own destruction. Taxpayers are forced to pay government workers generous pay, benefits and retirement, while government workers in turn use their taxpayer provided pay to elect leftist/progressive Democrats who in turn give them even higher pay and benefits at taxpayer expense.

Government workers must not be allowed to unionize and feed off and bankrupt the taxpayers.


CA is headed directly for bankruptcy because of the profligacy of the socialist legislature buying political support from the public unions at taxpayer expense.

If you don't believe me, just wait, and not long either.


Let me get this straight. Unions were created to protect the working class from the exploitation of capitalists. Ok, that made sense. So far, so good.

Now, unions are formed to protect government workers from the exploitation of the government. Hummm! This is where I run into a brick wall mentally.

Stephen D. Johnson

The Times needs to look into a mirror. Every opportunity the Times has had to endorse candidates, it has chosen the one that supports escalating public pension benefits. The public unions represent the public employees. With the use of union dues and the support of the Times, candidates are elected to public office who support the unions. The public employee unions now sit on both sides of the bargaining table. The result is the current system of unaffordable pension benefits. The johnny-come-lately concern of the Times is a mask to hide the historically strong editorial position of the Times on the need for more and more powerful public employee unions.


My recollection is that only money that members VOLUNTARILY assign to the union's political action committees can be channeled to candidates or causes supported by the union. Since many members support the political stance of the union, they agree to modest ongoing contributions. Further, membership in the union is also voluntary. Even in "agency shop" jobs, employees can opt to pay ONLY a service fee to pay their share of cost for representation.
Many union detractors do not seem to know this, and consequently present an inaccurate picture of how union political power is used.


I have lieved in California my 60 years and my grandparents before me. It makes me sick to see how the state has gone Union in every way. Even the election and the power has been given to them by the people that dont know any better.
Do the people not know that they are speaking through them with there own money? Yes, we will be paying for a pention, insurance for millions here.
Is it really fair that they are paid more than my family for the same hard work?
Is it fair that they have dues used to protest illegal immigration in our state or work for an election, spreading there money and people so far and wide that it has a clear distrorted view?
Truth, Jerry Brown is old and worn out. He Bankrupted Oakland. He is washed out. So is Boxer. Why are people voting for these has beens?

I say, it is time to take a look at what this state has become. It is very sad.
I am ashamed of the place our family has called home for generations.


L.A. City workers are dumb. A friend of mine told me she was going to a union conference in Chicago "on their dime" and I was almost doubled over in laughter. I asked her how many years she'd been paying union dues and she told me 12 so I had to inform her SHE'S paying for the trip not the union. About a year or two later she told me she was going to another conference but said the union is only paying for "some of it." She still didn't get it.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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