That’s the question at the heart of the Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME, the most consequential labor case in decades.
The truth is, unions are openly and intrinsically political. They spend large amounts of money through their PACs, and they use this leverage at the bargaining table - not to mention everything they bargain over is inherently political because it involves the use of taxpayer money.
Even if you disregard these facts, the numbers don’t lie.
Government unions frequently spend more of their members’ dues on politics and lobbying than they do on representing their members.
AFSCME itself is a prime example.
Twenty-five percent of AFSCME headquarters’ spending in the last 10 years was on political activities and lobbying, while just 21 percent was on representational activities, according to new original research from the Illinois Policy Institute.
AFSCME isn’t alone. Just look at what powerful teachers’ unions are doing with their members’ money.
The American Federation of Teachers spent nearly $160 million on political activities and lobbying from 2013-2017. AFT’s political spending typically is directed toward Democrats. In the 2016 election cycle alone, AFT PAC’s contributions to federal candidates topped $1.7 million to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif; Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
AFT spent just $5,500 on federal Republican candidates.
Like AFSCME, the National Education Association has been known to spend more on politics than it does on representing workers. Its legally required spending disclosures reveal that twice in the last five years (2013 and 2017), NEA spent more on political activities and lobbying than it did on representational activities.
In the 2016 election cycle, NEA directed almost $1.9 million to federal-level candidates, most of which went to Democrats. Its biggest recipient: Hillary Clinton.
What’s more, unions also blur the lines between what is “political” and what is “representational,” categorizing things that are inherently political as representational to hide political spending. So the disparity between what is legally classified as “representational” and “political” is likely greater.
If you follow the money, one thing becomes painfully clear: Government unions artificially distort the American political landscape.
Mark Janus, the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois is forced to pay for political speech he doesn’t agree with. Mark felt many of AFSCME’s aims went directly against his idea of what public service is all about. That’s why he filed his lawsuit.
Just like Mark, taxpayers are forced to pay for union political speech, as government workers’ pay is funded by tax dollars. The worst part?
Even when purportedly “representing” workers, government unions like AFSCME are working directly against taxpayers’ best interests.
Illinois, Mark Janus’ home state, provides a great example. Illinois has the nation’s worst state pension crisis and a massive pile of unpaid bills. It can’t afford to pay its outstanding debts, let alone raises for workers.
Yet AFSCME Council 31, the union which represents Mark himself, has been demanding for three years a contract with pay increases up to 29 percent and overtime starting after just 37.5 hours in a week.
The data on union finances reveal heavy, intensely partisan political spending by government worker unions and their state and national affiliates, which might not reflect the preferences of the union members who fund this setup with their dues.
Just consider: While much of government union politics support goes to Democrats, anywhere from 39.8 to 43 percent of union households have voted Republican in presidential elections since 2000, according to exit polls cited by Cornell University researchers.
What’s more, members are led to believe that the union wants to “represent” them for their benefit. But the lopsided spending of major unions such as AFSCME and NEA tells a different story.
This is a moneymaking scheme for upper-level union management.
Union dues fund a political machine that works against union members and taxpayers. The Janus decision could break that scheme.
Mailee Smith is the policy staff attorney and labor expert for the Illinois Policy Institute, a Chicago-based think tank that promotes smaller government and free-market principles. Mark Janus is represented by the Liberty Justice Center, the Illinois Policy Institute’s litigation partner, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.