NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Why Unions Matter To Democrats: It's Not Just Money

The fight over public employee unions has exploded into a high-stakes partisan war. In Wisconsin and several other states, Republicans want to end collective bargaining with many public employee unions. Two favorite proposals would disrupt the ability of unions to build their political funds. And that would deal a major blow to the Democratic Party.

In a fireside chat last month on television, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker said his proposal is all about fiscal policy.

"It certainly isn't a battle with unions," he said. "If it was, we would have eliminated collective bargaining entirely, or we would have gone after the private sector unions."

But on Wednesday, the Republican National Committee threw that argument out the window with a television ad airing in Wisconsin. According to the ad, "Obama and the union bosses are standing in the way of economic reform."

At the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, Peter Flaherty takes it even further. "To be blunt," he says, "we can either bust the unions, or we can bust the country."

Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, says what Republicans really want is to destroy the Democratic Party.

"The Republican view," says Ackerman, "is let's beat 'em while we can; let's destroy the unions while we can. And then we won't have to worry about Democrats anymore."

It's hard to overstate what unions do for the Democratic Party. First, let's talk about the money.

Of the money that comes from union members, millions go to candidates and party committees — and millions more are spent on unions' own organizing and messaging. Unions give Republicans virtually nothing.

The three biggest public employee unions are the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

They rank in the Top 20 sources of campaign cash, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — ahead of most corporate players.

That said, unions are not the Democrats' main source of money. The financial sector, just as one example, gives many millions more.

But the big thing about unions isn't the money.

"It's the manpower. It's the people on the ground that they are able to offer that makes them invaluable," says political scientist Eric Heberlig, of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Heberlig says the unions give Democrats a grass-roots operation that's unique in American politics. In fact, unions are the most dominant Democratic group in states in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon and most of the other battleground states.

Allan Cigler, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, gives one example from the 2008 campaign.

"They employed something like 3,000 people to Ohio for the last six weeks of the campaign. That's the kind of stuff that they do. Republicans have nothing like that."

And when unions aren't there for the Democrats, Cigler says, there are consequences.

"Basically labor sat out the '94 election, was mad at the Clinton administration — the Democratic Party was overwhelmed."

In this current conflict, union leaders point to an unintended benefit to the alliance between unions and Democrats.

John Wilson, director of the National Education Association, says Republicans have oversimplified and misread the facts of his union.

"What they don't see is the fact that the NEA has 1 million Republican members."

That's nearly one-third of all NEA members. And Wilson says he's been hearing from them.

"Many of our Republican members basically have said, 'I'm not voting for Republican officeholders who take away my collective bargaining rights.' So I think [Republicans] should be very careful about what they're trying to do," says Wilson. "They actually might create a situation where they're losing votes."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.