Labor unions were big losers in this week's elections, but you won't hear them admit it. After pouring $10 million into a campaign to defeat incumbent Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln -- who won anyway -- the AFL-CIO hailed their embarrassing loss as "a tremendous victory" for working families. And the Service Employees International Union, which spent more than $3 million to oust Lincoln, is signaling it will sit out the Senate race in Arkansas in the fall, as well as several congressional races where more centrist Democrats will be on the ballot.
Ever wonder why unions have become so irrelevant in recent years? They've been hemorrhaging members for six decades and now represent only 7 percent of private-sector workers and 12 percent of the total labor force. And they've basically given up on representing their members' interests, instead devoting most of their efforts and money to currying political favor and access.
But exactly what do the billions in members' dollars spent on politics actually buy? The SEIU's Andy Stern (who stepped down as president in early May) demonstrated he was a lousy kingmaker in Arkansas, but he still managed to visit the Obama White House more often than any other person on the planet in 2009. And that is really what it's all about. Labor bosses don't give a hoot about the workers they represent. They push a left-wing agenda rooted in their own ideological proclivities, regardless of whether it helps or hurts working men and women.
And the Arkansas Senate race is a perfect example. The SEIU and Big Labor in general were big fans of Sen. Lincoln until she did the unthinkable -- she sided with the voters in her state rather than her labor backers on a couple of key issues.
Arkansans didn't think much of Big Labor's proposed card check legislation, which would abolish secret ballot elections in determining whether employees want a union to represent them at the bargaining table, so Lincoln didn't back the bill. According to national polls, 74 percent of voters say they oppose card check, and the percentage of persons in union households who oppose the legislation was identical. But that hasn't stopped the SEIU and other unions from trying to punish anyone who dares disagree.
The same holds for voter opposition to a public option in health care reform, which the unions claimed Lincoln opposed -- though she came down on both sides in the public option debate, depending on what was politically expedient at the time.
But why did unions push the public option in the first place? In addition to being wildly unpopular with all Americans, it wouldn't have helped union members one whit. Union workers already have health insurance -- and many have so-called Cadillac plans whose benefits are far more generous than any government program could offer. A public option would have meant higher taxes and no benefits for union members.
Even Big Labor's political allies are getting fed up with the unions' tactics. After Lincoln's victory against her labor-backed opponent, an anonymous White House spokesman told Politico newspaper, "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise." Of course, that won't stop Democrats from continuing to use unions as cash cows for their political campaigns. Without union contributions, Democrats would not have won the White House and control of both houses of Congress.
According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Government, six out of the top 10 donors in federal elections since 1989 are unions -- amounting to almost $191 million in direct contributions, more than 90 percent of which has gone to Democrats. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Unions also spend money by organizing get-out-the-vote drives, printing and distributing campaign literature, and running their own advocacy ads. And they disburse thousands of campaign "volunteers" -- who are most often on union-paid vacation or administrative leave -- to provide shock troops for union-backed candidates.
But union members have little say about which candidates their unions support, and they don't always vote for the candidates their unions endorse. In the hotly contested Massachusetts Senate race earlier this year, 49 percent of union households backed Republican Scott Brown to 46 percent who backed the union-supported Democrat Martha Coakley.
Union dues still help fund Big Labor's political juggernaut by paying the political union operatives who run the show and paying for efforts to persuade union members how they should vote. So, while labor bosses may have egg on their face after their embarrassing losses this week, it is labor union members who foot the bill, whether they want to or not.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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