Who is the largest single political contributor in the 2010 campaign cycle? You can be pardoned if you answer, erroneously, that it's some new conservative group organized by Karl Rove. That's campaign spin by the Obama Democrats, obediently relayed by certain elements of the so-called mainstream media.
The real answer is AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union's president, Gerald McEntee, reports proudly that AFSCME will be contributing $87,500,000 in this cycle, entirely or almost entirely to Democrats. "We're spending big," he told The Wall Street Journal. "And we're damn happy it's big."
The mainstream press hasn't shown much interest in reporting on unions' campaign spending, which amounted to some $400,000,000 in the 2008 cycle. And it hasn't seen fit to run long investigative stories on why public employee unions -- the large majority of whom work for state and local governments -- contribute so much more to campaigns for federal office.
Nor has it denounced the Supreme Court's decision last January in Citizens United allowing unions to spend members' dues on politics without their permission and without disclosure.
AFSCME's number one status is emblematic of a change in the union movement over the years. Before public employee unions won the right to represent employees in New York City in 1958 and federal employees in 1962, almost all union members worked in the private sector.
But unions today represent only 7 percent of private-sector workers, and in 2009, for the first time in history, most union members were public employees.
This would not have gone down well with President Franklin Roosevelt. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," he said in the 1930s. A public employee strike, he said, "looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."
It still is at the federal level, thanks to presidents of both parties and especially to Ronald Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. But successful strikes in many states and cities have given public employee unions huge clout and hugely generous salaries, benefits and pensions.
Even more important is the political reality that, as New York union leader Victor Gotbaum said in 1975, "We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss."
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