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Reeder: Illinois workers deserve say regarding union membership

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:23AM



For years, organized labor has boasted of its strength in numbers, but as its membership has dwindled, its political clout increasingly has come in the form of contributing money to politicians.

Between 2005 and 2011, the number of union workers in Illinois dropped from about 927,000 to 876,000. Despite that 5.5 percent membership decline, the amount of money that Illinois unions have given to politicians has increased by 41 percent during the same period.

“Unions aren’t persuading people to join, so the only way they can exert influence is through lobbying and political campaigns,” said Paul Kersey, a colleague at the Illinois Policy Institute.

Kersey, director of labor policy for the institute, just wrote “The Labor Book, a Guide to Illinois Government Unions.” It’s a must-read for those wanting to gain a better understanding of diverse issues such as school reform, taxation, government spending and pension transformation.

In all of these issues, unions exert disproportionate influence on the legislative process.

And as Labor Day approaches, it’s important to remember that the makeup of organized labor has changed. As Kersey notes in his book, in 1983, 75 percent of all Illinois union members worked in the private sector. Today, it’s 56 percent.

Marketplace pressures have reduced union membership in private industry, but so far in Illinois government unions have been protected from such forces, Kersey said.

“It’s hard to know if government workers really want to be a part of a union,” he said. “Right now, they are forced to pay dues to the union — whether they want to or not.”

And it’s even harder to know if rank-and-file union members agree with how union bosses allocate the revenue from workers’ dues toward the unions’ political activism. It’s the union leaders who decide what politicians to aid.

Unions also run large political action committees. According to the Labor Book, between 2002 and 2012 Illinois’ six major union PACs gave more than $25 million to politicians. Of that amount, 81 percent flowed to Democrats and 19 percent to Republicans.

The problem with these hefty PAC donations is that the leaders of the public employee unions are negotiating labor contracts and issues with the very people whose campaigns they are helping to finance.

This is one reason the Illinois state pension systems are the worst-funded in the nation.

Government union leaders have been successful in negotiating higher wages and better benefits for their members. But another main role of a union leader is to serve as a steward of their members’ pension systems.

As of 2012, Illinois’ five state pension systems, on average, were only 39 percent funded, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Under this system, the risk for workers is that their retirement money simply won’t be there.

Members of the public employee unions are left without options because they can’t exit these failing pension systems.

When workers in Wisconsin were given a choice about whether to join a union, many opted out. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council that represents city and county workers in Milwaukee has experienced a 61 percent drop in membership during the last two years.

And the AFSCME council representing state workers in Wisconsin saw its membership fall 35 percent, the MacIver Institute reports.

When workers are allowed to make the membership decision for themselves, union bosses are held more accountable for their actions — they can’t just continue to follow a failing status quo because their performance is tied to the size and strength of their membership.

But here in Illinois, forced union membership for government workers is commonplace, and union bosses are free to carry on without consequences. And that’s unfair.

Don’t Illinois workers deserve the same right to choose union membership that their brothers and sisters in Indiana, Michigan and the 22 other right-to-work states have?

All-powerful union bosses are perpetuating an unfair atmosphere for workers in Illinois. It’s high time that Illinois legislators free up workers, allowing them to make their choice when it comes to whether or not to join a union.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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