The Largest Political Machine
by Walter Russell Mead at the American Interest
At first glance, today’s Wall Street Journal piece on teachers donating vast sums of money to outside political groups hardly comes as a surprise. Unions in both the public and private sectors are well known for organizing and donating money to favored candidates and political groups.
Yet some of these donations appear to go beyond what would be expected from a union’s lobbying arm. In addition to the expected donations to Democratic politicians and labor groups in which the unions have a clear interest, union money is also going to groups with more of a social agenda, including gay rights activists and other civil-rights organizations:
Some of the spending that the two teachers unions identified to the Labor Department as “political and lobbying” activities from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2011 went to election consultants, voter mobilization and advertising. Additional millions went to PACs that donate almost entirely to Democratic candidates and committees. Dozens of other organizations that promote a range of issues—women’s rights groups, organizations backing African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American civil rights, and think tanks producing pro-union economic studies—also received money, according to a review of the documents by The Wall Street Journal.
Some of the contributions provide indirect political benefit to the unions, by fostering allies among progressive groups. This has helped give teachers widespread political clout on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, and has made them nearly indispensable to the Democratic Party.
While the revelations made in this article are hardly a shock, understanding the role of the public sector unions in political donations is key to understanding the functioning of the modern American Left. The deep pockets of teachers unions and other public sector unions provide the financial infrastructure that keeps the Left in business.
It’s the ultimate political machine. Teachers’ unions lobby elected officials to get more money and benefits for their members. The voting clout that the unions have in state and local politics makes it easy for politicians to give them what they want—even if it is more than the city can actually afford. As a result, many cities are now struggling with high pension promises that they are in no position to keep. Many cities are now hoping to scale some of these pensions back, but the union machine continues to fight such measures even as the pensions become unsustainable. Many find that the unions are just too powerful to fight.
But this is only one side of the machine. With the dues money that they get, teachers unions and other public sector unions fund a large infrastructure of other, generally left-leaning, political groups. These groups help pressure politicians to give the unions the benefits and salary agreements they want, even in circumstances where this may be only tangential to the organization’s core mission. The unions’ pockets are deep, and union leaders often have the political savvy to use their funds to create a broader alliance to support their interests.
The Walker reforms in Wisconsin are a direct threat to this powerful machine. That is why they were so strongly resisted.
Yet while these political battles often dominate state politics, their impact is much smaller at the federal level. Most laws about public-sector unions continue to be decided by the states, and most of the most important battles over union power will be held at statehouses rather than the U.S. Capitol.
This is not to say that the unions are ignoring the federal government. State and local governments, often by law, have to balance their budgets each year, limiting the size of the pay increases and pension promises that the unions can extract. The federal government, however, is under no such constraint, and unions are only too happy to use federal spending to circumvent the fiscal constraints of state and local government. Unions take a strong interest in battles over how many teachers and firefighters and police the federal government should pay for in state and local governments; more federal involvement means more money, which means more jobs with higher benefits.
Though the union political machine has lost power and prestige since its mid-century heyday, it remains one of the strongest forces on the Left in terms of fundraising and political organization. The fight over the future of public sector unions may be the most important political battle in the United States today.