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As membership rates fall, unions double down on politics

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Op-Ed by Matt Brouillette. This piece originally appeared at RealClearPennsylvania.

Labor unions portray themselves as champions of the little guy – standing up for workers against powerful special interests. But declining union membership rates suggest that many workers are no longer convinced that unions speak for them.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2022, the overall union membership rate fell to its lowest levels since the government began tracking it in 1983. Just 10.1% of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, down from 10.3% in 2021 – only about half the 20.1% rate of 1983. In other words, nearly 9 out of 10 American workers are not in a union, despite union efforts to organize them.

Pennsylvania’s story is typical: the state’s 1983 union membership rate of 27.5% had fallen to 12.9% by 2021. And since 2018 – when the Supreme Court ruled that public sector workers could no longer be forced to pay a union as a condition of employment – the top six unions in Pennsylvania have lost more than 14,000 members, according to data compiled by the Commonwealth Foundation.

You’d think that in the face of diminishing interest among workers, unions would focus more on listening to their members. Instead, they’re aggressively pursuing power-seeking political activity, spending millions to advance their progressive agenda. They’ve become powerful special interests themselves.

As union membership has dramatically shrunk in the private sector, unions have focused on trying to grow membership in the government sector. As a result, unions predominantly fund political candidates who commit to expanding the size and scope of government, bringing in more public employees who will become dues-paying union members.

In the 2013-14 election cycle, the political action committees (PACs) of Pennsylvania’s top government unions spent more than $10.5 million on campaign activity. This figure represented an 89% increase over these PACs’ 2011-12 spending.

Then, during the 2017-18 election cycle – the last midterm gubernatorial election year before 2022 – the top government unions’ PACs spent over $12 million on campaign activity, overwhelmingly in support of Democrats.

Despite losing thousands of members since then, these unions spent more than $13 million on campaign activity in the 2021-22 cycle, according to campaign-finance reports. More than $12 million was directed to supporting Democratic candidates. Josh Shapiro topped the list of recipients, with nearly $5.5 million in union donations going to his successful gubernatorial campaign.

Nationally, the political spending of the country’s largest teachers’ union tells a tale. In 2020-21, the National Education Association spent $2 on political activity for every $1 spent on member representational activity. What’s more, the NEA’s political spending increased by approximately 30% from the previous year – from $51 million to $66 million. And this spending represents only dues money, not PAC money raised separately.

Ironically, unions’ growing spending on politics – and in support of radical policies – is driving dues-paying members away.

Americans for Fair Treatment (AFFT), a nonprofit organization that helps public employees understand and exercise their rights regarding union membership, has shared multiple stories of public employees who learned firsthand that their union was more concerned with advancing a political ideology than with serving its members.

Kim Lewin, a school librarian in Chester County, left her union in part due to frustrations over how much of her membership dues went to political activity. “Voting is ultimately a private choice,” she told AFFT. “I don’t want to do letter writing campaigns for the preferred candidate of the union. I don’t want my job dictating who I vote for.”

Dave Chaump, a longtime music teacher in Lackawanna County, was frustrated that the teachers’ union wasn’t using his $900 in annual dues to negotiate better salaries for him and other teachers. He didn’t like that the union prioritized far-left political activity over helping students get a great education.

“It sounds crazy,” he told AFFT, “but life as a member of the PSEA [Pennsylvania State Education Association] was like a Hollywood script about some cult brainwashing its members in order to maintain power. Leaders guarded information like state secrets and frowned upon questions or dissent. Independent political thought contrary to the official PSEA company line was unwelcome, and groupthink reigned.”

As unions continue to lose the members who fund their coffers, it’s possible that their days of unbridled political power are numbered. In the meantime, they are determined to spend even more money to advance the progressive agenda that protects their political and financial power.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs.