November 29, 2011 | Commentary on Political Thought
News that two major labor unions will soon co-opt an "Occupy" protest in Washington solidifies two facts about the waning protest movement: It is an entirely ordinary function of left-wing activism and it is wholly unserious about addressing special interests' influence over the political process.
The Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America will stage a December protest at the Capitol in conjunction with Occupiers. The protest's stated goal, according to SEIU president Mary Kay Henry: to intimidate Republicans into backing the president's economic agenda.
The Occupy protests, in other words, will be co-opted by a pair of unions looking to leverage populist anger in their push for a left-wing agenda -- more "stimulus" spending, higher taxes, no entitlement reform and an ever-increasing national debt.
Occupiers nationwide initially touted their nonpartisan credentials. "Occupy Congress," as the forthcoming protest is to be titled, should put that claim to rest.
Collaboration with some of the nation's largest labor unions undercuts protesters' claims that their chief grievance is special interests' undue influence on the political process. Indeed, the SEIU is the fifth largest political contributor of any third-party group since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Five of the top 10 groups in terms of political contributions are unions.
In the past two election cycles, American labor unions reported an astounding $2.2 billion in political expenditures. The SEIU spent more than $55 million on political activities in 2010. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is also supporting the Occupy protests, was the year's most politically active union in terms of expenditures.
Big Labor is also taking full advantage of campaign finance freedoms recognized by Occupiers' most vilified Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC. Chief among labor groups leveraging the freer campaign finance environment is the AFL-CIO, which has also been among the most supportive of the Occupy protests.
A host of internationals, both AFL-CIO- and Change to Win-affiliated, have also thrown their support behind the Occupy protests. Those include the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, United Steelworkers, Transportation Workers, Industrial Workers, National United Nurses and Laborers' International.
Unions have long been the political shock troops for the Democratic Party, providing millions in political contributions and invaluable Election Day support. The nexus between big-government liberals and labor unions is a textbook case of cronyism. The increase in the share of unionized workers employed by government -- now a majority of all union members -- creates perverse political incentives.
"Labor unions' political activism creates a conflict of interest in government," Heritage Foundation labor expert James Sherk writes. "In the private sector, employer pressure to cut costs balances excessive union wage demands. In the government, unions can use their political influence to elect sympathetic politicians, and then labor and management work together to raise government pay. No one at the bargaining table speaks for the taxpayers."
But even in the private sector, unions have an overt political agenda and use their immense political muscle to enact it. That was ostensibly the trend that the Occupy protests were created to fight.
But as more unions back the protesters, it becomes clearer that they are just fine with political insiderism -- as long as the insiders are pushing the right (read: liberal) policies.
Lachlan Markay is a reporter for the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service