Public Sector Unions & Political Spending

Working from the bottom up, it is virtually impossible to extract accurate figures to quantify just how much money public sector unions spend on political activity. For example, money spent at the state level on politics, as tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, or, in California, as tracked by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, only track one subset of political spending. These figures, staggering though they may be, don’t show data for local races (every city council, county board of supervisors, water board, school board, police commission, fire commission, etc.) – and, equally significant, these databases are unable to clearly identify the source of donations that have been run through foundations or independent expenditure campaigns, or political parties – often several times – before appearing on a candidate or issue campaign’s disclosure report.

For these reasons, in order to get a good idea of what public sector unions are really spending on political activity, you have to work from the top down. Using California as an example, you can estimate how much public sector unions spend on state and local politics each year if you can accurately identify three variables: (1) How many public sector workers are members of unions, (2) what the average annual union dues payment is per worker per year, and (3) what percentage of union dues are used by the unions for political activity.

Answering the first question is probably the easiest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in California in 2008 there were approximately 400,000 state government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, State) and approximately 1,450,000 local government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, Local). This means there are about 1.85 million state and local government workers in California.

To determine how many of these workers are unionized, there are at least two sources available, one is an authoritative study from around 2002 entitled “California Union Membership, A Turn of the Century Portrait,” which references data from the California Dept. of Industrial Relations, as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and corroborates this data with a series of surveys administered to union locals throughout California. This study determined that, at that time, 53.8% of California’s public sector workers were unionized.

Another more recent source of information comes from, an online database, updated annually, that tracks union membership and coverage, constructed by Barry Hirsch (Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University) and David Macpherson (Department of Economics, Trinity University). Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they have compiled a variety of interesting data, including “Union Membership, Coverage, Density, and Employment by State and Sector, 1983-2009.” By clicking on the 2009 link provided under this section on the left column of their home page, a spreadsheet comes up with a number consistent with the earlier 2003 findings, that is, 55.8% of California’s state and local government workers are now unionized. This means there are just over 1.0 million unionized state and local government workers in California. How much do they pay each year in dues?

According to a July 7th, 2010 guest editorial published in the San Jose Mercury entitled “Teachers’ unions political funding inappropriate,” authored by reform activist Larry Sand, “Teachers’ dues in California average about $1,000 per teacher per year, with about 30 percent of it going for political spending.”

What about police, firefighters, corrections officers, and other public safety personnel – virtually all of whom are now unionized in California – who comprise about 13% of the state and local government workforces – about 240,000 employees? How much do they pay annually in union dues? According to information provided by Vallejo, California’s post-bankruptcy City Manager, Joseph Tanner, and as reported by George Will in a Sept. 11th, 2008 Washington Post column entitled “Pension Time Bomb,” “using fiscal 2007 figures, each of the 100 firefighters paid $230 a month in union dues and each of the 140 police officers paid $254 a month, giving their unions enormous sums to purchase a compliant city council.” If this is typical, it would equate to at least $2,750 per year in union dues for police and firefighters in California. Even if the Vallejo situation is far from typical, it’s probably accurate to estimate California’s public safety workers pay their unions at least $1,000 per year in union dues.

Between teachers and public safety employees you have accounted for about 55% of California’s unionized public employees. Getting information on each of the unions may yield more startling total union revenues, but if you simply assume that public employees who are bureaucrats, nurses, administrators, maintenance employees, etc., are paying on average $500 each year in dues to their unions, then you can calculate the average payment for the entire 1.0 million unionized California state and local public employees is $750 per year. This is probably a conservative estimate, but using this number yields a total dues revenue to California’s public sector unions of $750 million per year. How much of this is used for political activity?

Returning to Larry Sand’s commentary, 30% of CTA funds are allegedly used for political activity. Most inside observers I’ve talked with suggest the percentage is higher than this, for a variety of reasons. If you review the California Fair Political Practices Commission website, don’t just look for data on election financing. Review the public disclosures by lobbying firms, and click on the pages that list their clients. Despite the unceasing uproar over the pernicious influence of “corporate lobbyists,” estimates of how much of the overall revenue to lobbying firms come from the public sector nearly always exceed 50%, and the source of this money is not just public sector unions, and their many political action committees and other organizations, but also from public agencies themselves! If one considers the level of power exercised by union operatives over public agencies – where the political appointees who supposedly manage these agencies come and go, but union power is a continuous reality – you can begin to imagine how the political agenda of taxpayer-funded public agencies and the public sector unions who influence these agencies are usually one and the same.

Another argument supporting the estimate that at least a third of union dues go to support political activity – if not much more – is the ability of the unions to reallocate money to political activity from their general fund when they choose. A recent example, reported on July 7th, 2010 in the Education Intelligence Agency blog post entitled “California Teachers Association Shifts $2 Million of Dues Money to PAC,” states the following:  “CTA very much wants Jerry Brown elected governor and Tom Torlakson as state superintendent of public instruction. So, for a single year, they increased the PAC allocation to $26.30 [per month, up from $18.30 per month], without raising total dues any additional amount. This maneuver will generate an additional $2 million or more for the PAC.” How this loophole works in California is also explained, “This sleight-of-hand would not be permitted at the federal level. But because state law allows the union to collect dues and PAC money in the same lump sum, CTA can claim that the general fund money is not the exact same money being added to the PAC coffers.”

There’s more. When assessing public sector union influence on politics, there are in-kind contributions that, while reportable, cannot be objectively quantified. What would it cost a private sector interest to send busloads of activists to events to demonstrate for the TV cameras, or use other assets such as existing office resources, in order to wage a political campaign? Whenever a public entity does this, they are required to register this as an “in-kind” donation, and assign a monetary value to this. But these in-kind values can be understated in the mandatory disclosures, and more significantly, these are contributions that are in addition to the hard costs that are funded through collection of union dues.

Finally, what about the indirect influence of public sector unions, the way they trade on the credibility of public servants – firefighters and police officers in particular – to advance their agenda in political campaigning? What about the influence of activist teachers in our public schools and universities, who advocate ideologies consistent with their union leadership when teaching impressionable young students, even when these ideologies may be counter to mainstream political sentiment?

Taking all this into account, the calculations that come out of this exercise are probably conservative – California’s 1.0 million unionized public sector employees times dues of $750 per year times one-third equals $255 million per year, over $20 million per month. This is what public sector unions are probably spending on politics, and for the many reasons detailed here, this number is probably quite low compared to reality.

The implications of this are clear: In California, public sector unions enjoy an overwhelming financial advantage in virtually every political cause or candidate they support. They have used this advantage to take over California’s State Senate and State Assembly, as well as many of California’s City Councils, County Boards of Supervisors, and various local administrative districts, especially in the major urban areas. In turn, this has resulted in years of relentless and unwarranted increases to public sector employee pay and benefits, to the point where public sector employees in California now easily enjoy pay and benefits that are, on average, at least twice what people earn on average in the private sector. Union control of California’s state and local governments has also resulted in a big-government agenda being successfully advanced for decades, meaning the number of government jobs and programs is swollen well beyond what might be optimal for California’s economy and private taxpayers.

If none of this seems compelling given the alleged power of California’s corporate interests, one may consider the following: (1) Corporations are reluctant to fight the unions – whenever corporate interests begin to support public sector union reform, the unions threaten retaliatory legislation and initiatives. To-date, corporations have consistently backed down in the face of these threats. (2) Many corporations don’t care if the state government is inefficient via unionization. In some respects, they actually welcome the tax burden and the increased regulations, because large corporations are better able to withstand the higher overhead, and better able to employ lobbyists to garner a share of the spoils in the form of subsidies or special exemptions. Their smaller emerging competitors, however, cannot withstand these impacts, and hence are undermined as competitors. To think California’s public sector unions provide “balance” to corporate interests is naive.

Anyone who thinks it will be easy to rescue California from the grip of public sector unions is encouraged to go out and raise campaign donations from people and organizations who don’t have to give you a dime if they don’t want to. Then compare this to the $20 million per month that perpetually flows into the political coffers of public sector unions through automatic withholding of union member dues. And never forget, as a taxpayer, this is your money they have used to take control and bankrupt our state.

9 replies
  1. art says:

    I think there is a problem that nobody mentions that i dont know the solution. All over the country you have Aldermen, Town Councils, Boards of Education, etc that are volunteer elected positions. Most meetings are at 7 PM. If you work for (ex) Cisco, nothing you can do if you are elected can help you (but your job/family can be hurt by excessive unpaid committments). YOu are not likely to commit to server if you cant be helped but can be hurt. Mediocre lawyers, insurance/real estate agents, and other townies(bankers, funeral home etc) will run and be elected to these positions because it will give them visitiblity to build their businesses. They can give away public funds through generous negotiations. The ONLY WAY THEY CAN BE HURT is by taking on the public unions. IN Conn in almost every municipality the largest employer is the board of ed, in addition, big cities of 100K typically have 100 police and 100 firemen. If you take a stand you will be boycotted by these unions and thier family. Taking a stand WILL NOT get you any additional business from the private sector you may be helping as they are not informed and uninvolved. So all over the country you have round heeled negotiatiors building their business by giving away the uninformed taxpayers money. The only way to stop it is STRICT conflict of interest laws..and support for more salaried people who can benefit from reduced government spending to run for office by their employers- and support by non govt employees of business people who run for office and take on unions.

  2. SkippingDog says:

    ” Answering the first question is probably the easiest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in California in 2008 there were approximately 400,000 state government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, State) and approximately 1,450,000 local government workers (ref. 2008 Public Employment Data, Local). This means there are about 1.85 million state and local government workers in California.”

    Where do you find support for your assertion that there are 2 million state and local government workers in California? Not remotely possible, so the rest of your analysis must be equally flawed. I think you’ve confused national and state data sets.

  3. SkippingDog says:

    I checked again and it appears you have double counted state workers. Your links show 1.245 million total, including state and local, and include over 600,000 teachers. That really means that, outside of the schools, there are about 500,000 to 600,000 non school employees for the entire state. With a state population approaching 40 million, that makes much more sense.

  4. Ed says:

    SkippingDog – thank you for checking the source data. My read of this data is as follows:

    Public Employment Data – California Local Governments – “Full Time Equivalent Employment,” revised Dec. 2009 = 1,451,619.

    Public Employment Data – California State Government – “Full Time Equivalent Employment,” revised Dec. 2009 = 393,989

    This gives us a total of 1,845,608. My first premise, total state and local government employment, as stated at the end of paragraph three, is accurate: “This means there are about 1.85 million state and local government workers in California.”

    If there is double counting, or some other inaccuracy, I would be pleased to know exactly how and where.

  5. Charles Sainte Claire says:

    I worked my forty years under contract. I performed my end of the bargain and now I am collecting. I thank the Constitution of the United States and the clause on Contracts for this. If that portion of the Constitution could be voided because one party frivolously spend all their money our entire economy would collapse.

  6. Taxpayer says:

    There is a great article by Steven Malanga of the City Journal:
    The Beholden State
    How public-sector unions broke California
    “It will take an enormous effort to roll back decades of political and economic gains by government unions. But the status quo is unsustainable. And at long last, Californians are beginning to understand the connection between that status quo and the corruption at the heart of their politics.”

  7. Sharon says:

    As a parent and taxpayer I have seen the huge impact the UNION dollar can have. The local Teacher’s Union has spent nearly $400,000 in our school district election (an obscene amount of money for a local issue) in an effort to BUY control of the district budget on November 2nd. After watching the movie “Waiting for Superman” I realized that my 20 years of fighting for reform in public education and feeling like I am beating my head against the wall is a shared feeling by others across the country trying to do the same thing. Reform in Education cannot happen as long as the UNION seemingly has unlimited funds to ‘buy seats,’ influence elected officials and form our laws to favor their Union members, at the expense of all others.

  8. Taxpayer says:

    Public Employees work for ALL taxpayers.
    Public Employees’ Unions use money from ALL taxpayers to fund politics that create maximum contracts/benefits that Public Employees get at the expense of taxpayers.
    This is not efficient stewardship of taxpayer funds. Effective stewardship would be to keep taxpayer expenses as lean as possible, while performing service to the public taxpayer.
    Public Employees Union (direct or indirect) funding of any political purpose or candidate should be un-constitutional/illegal because they are not representing ALL of the taxpayers and it is a massive conflict of interest!
    (Of course any individual public or private person has the right to donate or vote as they please out of their after-tax take-home pay…)
    Public Employees have a monopoly on their jobs (that private employees do not have) therefore there is no need for a public union.

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