Public-sector workers were already earning good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy issued an executive order lifting the federal ban on government unions. Thanks to civil service regulations and similar laws, government workers had enjoyed good working conditions for generations.
The earliest unions in both the U.S. and Great Britain consisted of skilled workers, as it was widely believed that unskilled laborers were not suited for union organization.
But over time, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, unions for unskilled or semi-skilled workers grew into viable entities. This trend eventually came to America as well, when, in 1935, the AFL expelled a small group of member unions that were attempting to organize unskilled laborers. The expelled unions joined forces to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which successfully organized the steel and automobile industries.
During the latter years of the Depression, the U.S. labor movement was infiltrated by members of the Communist Party. Soon after World War II, however, unions generally began a process of purging their ranks of Communist influences. That process was given particular urgency in 1947 when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which stipulated that unions would be required to file financial reports and affidavits affirming that none of their officers were Communists.
From the 1950s through the mid-1990s, union leadership tended generally to be politically centrist. This trend was personified by such figures as Albert Shanker, who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974 to 1997; George Meany, who led the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979; and Lane Kirkland, who succeeded Meany as AFL-CIO president from 1979 to 1995.
When Shanker and Kirkland's respective tenures ended in the 1990s, however, they were replaced by leftists like Sandra Feldman (AFT), and John Sweeney (AFL-CIO). These individuals, along with other leftist ideologues at the helm of powerful unions, quickly transformed the labor movement into a “progressive” crusade.
Another major figure in the labor movement was Andrew Stern, the former New Leftist who served as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1996 to 2010. As Ryan Lizza, associate editor of The New Republic, notes, today’s SEIU leaders "tend to be radical, even socialist."
The leftward ideological shift of the unions brought with it a dramatic increase in political activism by union leaders and foot soldiers alike.
In 1996, for instance, Andrew Stern told SEIU officials that he expected “every leader at every level of this union, from the international president to the rank-and-file member, to devote five working days this year to political action” in support of the Democratic Party and its candidates.
Meanwhile, another major union, the National Education Association (NEA), has assembled a permanent, paid, full-time staff of at least 1,800 United Service (UniServ) employees who function as political operatives -- more than the Republican and Democratic Parties combined.
Beyond this, leftwing unions like the SEIU and NEA contribute huge sums of money to Democratic candidates during every election season.
Government (public-sector) unions have become major players in the American political process, providing a strong base of support for the left.
As of 2010, fully 36.2 percent of government employees were unionized.
This is virtually the only sector of American society where unions have been growing.
In the mid-20th century, nearly half of private-sector workers were union members.
By 2010, that proportion had plummeted to a mere 6.9 percent of private-sector workers.
One reason for this decline is that unionized private-sector companies, forced to pay wages higher than the law of supply-and-demand warranted, became uncompetitive in the global marketplace and went out of business.
Public-sector unions, by contrast, have suffered no such consequences because their success depends upon their ability to siphon up taxpayer dollars,
rather than upon their fiscal responsibility and the realities of the market. Public employees earn approximately 45 percent more, on average, in wages and benefits than comparable private-sector workers. In addition, public employees, as compared to their private-sector counterparts, pay less for their health care and receive pensions that are far more generous -- often without contributing any of their own money to those benefits. Rather, American taxpayers foot the bill.
Because government workers get their money not from a free marketplace but from taxes, their unions have a large incentive to advocate on behalf of political leaders who support higher taxes and bigger government, which can, in turn, produce an ever-greater number of public-sector union jobs.
Indeed, when California voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, cutting the state's astronomical property taxes by 57 percent, the public-sector unions were enraged. Union leader Ron Coleman said, "We're not going to just lie back and take it."
As pollster Scott Rasmussen explained in the Wall Street Journal, “Public-sector workers want government to grow first, and the overall health of the economy isn’t as relevant to them.” This mindset translates into overwhelming public-sector union support for Democratic politicians who will block efforts to reduce government and to lower taxes. Indeed, public-sector union money constitutes the lifeblood of the Democratic Party.
Union political support for Democrats is a trend that has been in place for decades, and it shows no signs of abating.
In 2010, America's top 20 labor unions gave more than $68 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates -- with 94 percent of the total going to Democrats and just 4 percent to Republicans.
Most of the total -- 88 percent -- came from political action committees (PACs) associated with those 20 unions, and the remaining 12 percent came from individual union members. A similar trend can be seen in state and local political campaigns. Fifteen unions gave at least $1 million to Democrats during the 2008 and 2010 campaigns. Combined, their donations totaled more than $206 million, of which fully 91 percent went to Democrats.