Ed note: This is a feature I ran on AlterNet last week. I’m reprinting it here in its entirety because I think it’s an important reality–check.

Let us begin with this simple, indisputable truth: public employees’ unions don’t get a single red cent from taxpayers. And they aren’t a mechanism to “force” working people to support Democrats – that’s completely illegal.

Public sector workers are employed by the government, but they are private citizens. Once a private citizen earns a dollar from the sweat of his or her brow, it no longer belongs to his or her employer. In the case of public workers, it is no longer a “taxpayer dollar”; it is a dollar held privately by an American citizen. Public sector unions are financed through the dues paid by these private citizens, who elected to be part of a union – not a single taxpayer dollar is involved, and no worker is forced to join a union against his or her wishes. No worker in the United States is required to give one red cent to support a political cause he or she doesn’t agree with.

There is no distinction between the role public- and private-sector unions play: both represent their members in negotiations with their employers. At the federal level, both are prohibited from using their members’ dues for political purposes. They donate to political campaigns – to elect lawmakers who will stand up for the interests of working people – but only out of voluntary contributions their members choose to make to their PACs.

“Unions cannot, from their general funds, contribute a dime to any federal candidate or national political party,” says Laurence Gold, an attorney with the AFL-CIO. “They can only do it through their separate political PAC and only according to strict limits.”

The states have a patchwork of different laws, and many do allow unions to donate to campaigns. But membership is entirely voluntary – when a group of workers elect to form a union, it doesn’t mean that everyone must sign up. The union negotiates on behalf of all the workers in the group – and all of the workers get the job security and other benefits that come with collective bargaining — but by law it can’t compel them to pay union dues. “It is a right-wing canard that anyone needs to join a union,” Gold told AlterNet. “If a union member doesn’t like what his or her union is doing, he or she is ultimately free to walk, without any diminution in their employment rights. They still get all the benefits and the union still has to represent them – just like it did the day before.”

In states that haven’t passed so-called Right-To-Work laws, the union can charge all workers in a “negotiating unit” for the direct cost of representing them, but cannot, by law, force them to pay for the union’s political activities. “They can only be required to pay for their share of bargaining costs and representation costs – not politics, not legislative stuff, not anything else,” Gold said. “Compulsory union dues are a canard, everywhere, and without exception. Anybody who says, oh you can compel somebody to support the union’s electoral activities – well, that’s simply false.”

Now that we have established a baseline of factual reality, let’s take a look at what much of the media – even the ostensibly “liberal” media – are telling the American people.

In a widely cited opinion piece in the Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson claimed that “public employee unions have the unique power to help pick pliant negotiating partners — by using compulsory dues to elect friendly politicians.” Again, a blatant falsehood, and one that prompted economist Dean Baker to point out that “if Mr. Gerson knows of any violations of the law, I’m sure that there are many ambitious prosecutors who would be happy to hear his evidence.”

The irony here is that while unions can’t compel workers to fork over a penny for political campaigns, corporations can donate unlimited amounts of their shareholders’ equity to do so – they are, in fact, in the “unique position” to elect pliant lawmakers. “What the right-wing and the business community always try to portray is that you have these union bosses that are forcing helpless employees to give them money,” says Gold, “when the reality is that these are their members who chose to be in a union and then elected their officers democratically, in sharp contrast to corporations, none of whose officers are elected democratically unless you count shareholders voting at an annual meeting as a real democratic system.”

And conservatives have long held that voluntary donations to political campaigns are a high form of free speech. The double standard is clear– “money equals speech” unless it’s money freely donated by working people to advance their own economic interests.

The corporate-backed Heritage Foundation – which has waged a longstanding propaganda war against the American labor movement — notes that “state and local employees in 28 states are required to pay full union dues” – patently untrue — and, “using this government coercion, government unions have amassed tremendous financial resources that they use to campaign for higher taxes and higher pay for government workers.”

There are no “government unions,” just unions of private workers. And they have no interest in campaigning for higher taxes – they are unions of taxpaying citizens. They do push for better pay, benefits and working conditions, like private sector unions, but officials elected by American voters determine the number and size of public programs and therefore the ultimate cost of government.

Heritage also makes much of the fact that public unions lobby for various policies that conservatives don’t like, and claims, yet again, that they do so with “taxpayer dollars.” That’s false, as we know, but it is true of another group: private contractors. They routinely include a line-item billing the government for part of the money they spend on lobbying – they, rather than the unions, actually use taxpayer dollars to lobby for, as Heritage puts it, “legislation and ballot measures that raise taxes and spending.”

Writing for Newsweek, Mark McKinnon writes that “it is the abuse by public unions and their bosses that pushes centrists like me to the GOP.” (McKinnon was a political adviser to both George W. Bush and John McCain.) His enthusiasm to spin public unions as something to be feared is so great, he ends up making this confused – and confusing – argument:

Unlike private-sector jobs, which are more than fully funded through revenues created in a voluntary exchange of money for goods or services, public-sector jobs are funded by taxpayer dollars, forcibly collected by the government (union dues are often deducted from public employees’ paychecks).

I don’t pretend to know what he means when he says private sector jobs are more than fully funded – we do have an underemployment rate of about 17 percent – but the rest is an incomprehensible mish-mash of “public sector jobs,” which are obviously paid for out of tax revenues, and public sector unions, which, as he notes, are funded out of the paychecks of private citizens working for the government – workers who choose to belong to a union.

He then advances the Big Lie, essentially turning reality on its head:

Big money from public unions, collected through mandatory dues, and funded entirely by the taxpayer, is then redistributed as campaign cash to help elect the politicians who are then supposed to represent taxpayers in negotiations with those same unions.

This falsehood pitting public employees against taxpayers is ubiquitous. The Washington Post ran a story headlined, “Ohio, Wisconsin shine spotlight on new union battle: Government workers vs. taxpayers”; Rush Limbaugh called public sector unions, “money launderers” for “Democrat politicians”; Mark Steyn called them, “rapacious, public sector-shakedown kleptocrats,” and self-proclaimed liberal Joe Klein wondered if they “are organized against the might and greed…of the public?”

All of this is meant to serve another, Bigger Lie – even more ubiquitous — that the cost of public workers is killing state budgets. As Bill O’Reilly put it with typical understatement, state “governments can’t afford to operate” because of “union wages and benefits.”

Here’s another factual baseline: those “cadillac” pensions we always hear about public workers getting actually average $22,000 per year and amount to just 6 percent of state budgets. Some states’ pension funds have problems because they’ve been raided to pay for tax cuts, but in aggregate, pensions aren’t eating up state budgets. Andrew Leonard, writing in Salon about what he calls  “the imaginary public sector pension fund crisis,” notes that because the stock market has recovered to a great degree, “those horrible ‘shortfalls’ everyone has been making such a big deal of are already in retreat.”

As economist Dean Baker notes, it was Wall Street, not a bunch of teachers and firefighters, which is to blame for the gaps that do exist. “Most of the pension shortfall,” he wrote, “is attributable to the plunge in the stock market in the years 2007-2009. If pension funds had earned returns just equal to the interest rate on 30-year Treasury bonds in the three years since 2007, their assets would be more than $850 billion greater than they are today.”

Public workers’ salaries are another 28 percent of state budgets. They get paid less than comparable workers in the private sector, even including benefits. The problem, as far as an honest debate goes, comes from the word “comparable.” Last week, USA Today (mis)informed its readers that workers in the public sector make more than in the private, a claim it backed up with misleading averages. The article only quoted in passing an economist who pointed out that their “analysis is misleading because it doesn’t reflect factors such as education that result in higher pay for public employees.” It’s actually meaningless, as public workers are twice as likely to have a college degree and have, on average, more years on the job than workers in the private sector.

State and local employees’ wages and salaries have virtually nothing to do with the budget gaps which many states are grappling with – that too is a result of the recession caused by Wall Street, not Main Street. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “State tax collections, adjusted for inflation, are now 12 percent below pre-recession levels, while the need for state-funded services has not declined. As a result, even after making very deep spending cuts over the last several years, states continue to face large budget gaps.” According to Census data, states’ social welfare payments to struggling individuals and families increased by around 25 percent between the first quarter of 2007 and the last quarter of 2010.

Most of the media lazily accepts that collective bargaining by state workers is a fiscal matter – a typical headline on AOL news asked, “Can collective bargaining bills stem state deficits?” as if there is some correlation between those two things. But the evidence doesn’t suggest as much: There are already 13 states that restrict public workers’ bargaining rights and it hasn’t helped their bottom lines. As Ed Kilgore noted, “eight non-collective-bargaining states face larger budget shortfalls than either Wisconsin or Ohio,” and ” three of the 13 non-collective bargaining states are among the eleven states facing budget shortfalls at or above 20%.”

Tragically, the corporate media, rather than shedding light on these facts –which are necessary for a healthy debate — is helping to obscure them under a cloud of anti-union spin.

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About the Author

Joshua Holland

I write for AlterNet. I've written a book, The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy, which I recommend. You might also consider following me on Twitter.

13 Responses to Public Employee Unions Don’t Get One Penny from Taxpayers (But the Big Lie That They Do Is Everywhere)

  1. Thank you for helping set the record straight. Not that facts matter much to those who believe the myths you’re trying to debunk, but it’s worth a try.

  2. Joshua Holland says:

    You just gotta keep plugging away. I also believe in arming my own side with the facts, so they can take those arguments to their RW acquaintances.

  3. H.M. Sutton says:

    I still keep wondering why the progressive side doesn’t broadcast this type of information WIDLY in order to counter the whacko right’s spinning of their lies. They have been doing so for decades and I’ve seldom seen the views of the other side. Maybe some billboards? And a cheap way to do it is via bumper stickers–everyone in traffic has someone behind them! Give’m something to read while stuck there. Bumper stickers are perhaps the most neglected way of communication on the cheap.

  4. greg says:

    Your logic is truly astounding, and from an accountant, how do you function in life , it has to be a struggle

  5. Jerbie says:

    Please, don’t confuse me with the facts, Archie Bunker, and in the real world lies are the manufacture of the very rich news speak outlets.

  6. Liz C. in Lee's Summit, MO says:

    I’m a retired federal employee and former AFL-CIO member. In the Social Security Administration where I worked in Kansas City, MO, our union workers were alloted time off from their work duties to perform union duties from the union office in the building. Wouldn’t that count as taxpayer money paying their salaries while performing union duties? Just curious.

  7. Dan says:

    “and no worker is forced to join a union against his or her wishes…”

    And no worker is forced to pay union dues, right?

  8. Frances in California says:

    You union-buster-funded trolls really need to leave Josh alone and crawl back into the space under the bathroom sink where the Koch bros. keep their diamonds in that phony cleanser can. The need for worker-solidarity is here, now; the freakin’ dues don’t amount to a weekend’s worth of beer per month. While you’re trying to kill Josh with the Thousand Cuts, your resources are being soaked up by the CEOs who – face it – do not care one wit about you.

  9. [...] (Right now, unions collect dues from all affected teachers—members or not—for bargaining, but can’t make them pay for political activities.) Richardville said right-to-teach legislation would let teachers [...]

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