South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday)

Democratic Party is literally the party of government

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The Democratic Party is often called the party of government. Ideologica­lly, this is so obviously true it’s not worth belaboring. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We have a federal government for a reason, and there are things it should do. Reasonable people can debate what those things are.

But there’s a difference between being the party of government in the ideologica­l sense and being the party of government in the literal sense. A core constituen­cy of the Democratic Party, both in terms of voters and donors, is people who work for the government.

Members of teachers unions regularly constitute around 10% of delegates to Democratic Party convention­s. There are about 3.5 million public school teachers in America, comprising about 1% of the U.S. population. That means teachers union members are overrepres­ented among the activist base of the Democratic Party by a factor of about 1,000%. In 2019-2020, according to Open Secrets, of the roughly $52 million that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Associatio­n spent on political donations, $130,000 went to Republican­s or Republican groups, and the rest went to Democrats or Democratic groups — a ratio of about 400 to 1.

Of course, it’s not just teachers unions. In the 2020 election cycle, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) dedicated 99.1% of its political spending to Democrats.

The American Federation of Government Employees gave 95.6% to Democrats.

At the state and local level, public-sector unions are often the biggest contributo­rs to Democrats, not just in terms of money but also in terms of organizati­onal effort.

No wonder that one of the first things Joe Biden did after being elected was issue an executive order repealing a Trump administra­tion policy that restricted government employees from spending more than 25% of their time doing union business while on the job. It can now go back to 100%.

Of course, part of the Democratic Party’s preference for government unions can be explained by the central role organized labor has played in Democratic politics going back to at least the New Deal. In 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, 90% of all labor spending on federal elections ($219 million) went to Democrats. Public-sector unions only comprised about a third of that ($68.5 million).

But there’s a difference between private-sector and public-sector unions. The former need a private sector to exist, which is why rank-and-file union members are less enthusiast­ic about Democrats than their unions’ political donations would suggest. Biden got only 57% of the union household vote. Leading up to the election, members of building trade unions were evenly split between Trump and Biden.

The difference between public-sector and private-sector unions isn’t trivial. Coal miners, factory workers, etc., formed unions in response to brutal working conditions, using their collective bargaining power to force important reforms from businesses. There is no similar history justifying public-sector unions. There was no tragic Department of Motor Vehicles ceiling collapse that prompted government workers to organize.

Being pro-labor doesn’t require being pro-government labor union. Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the most pro-labor president in history, believed that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplant­ed into the public service.” George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, held that it was “impossible to bargain collective­ly with the government.”The crux of the problem is that government isn’t a business. It doesn’t have to run at a profit. It can keep borrowing (or printing) money almost indefinite­ly. Actual businesses need to keep the lights on by making a profit. That tension imposes discipline on both management and workers when it comes to private-sector unions. There is no similar countervai­ling pressure to keep labor costs in line or work rules efficient for government union labor. Since 1960, inflation-adjusted spending on education has increased by some 280%. Have we seen the quality of education improve 280%?

The party of government, and often government itself, is dominated by a constituen­cy that, to put it charitably, has divided loyalties between what is good for the public and what is good for them.

Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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