November 10, 2014 | Commentary on Labor, Legal Issues, Elections, Jobs and Labor Policy

Unions Spent Millions in 2014, and Came Up Empty

Perhaps the biggest story of Tuesday night is the dog that barked but didn’t bite: the unions. Virtually every politician they targeted won.

This was not expected. Midwest conservative politicians had passed a raft of recent labor reforms, and union leaders had threatened electoral retribution against them. But on election night, nothing happened.

Consider: In 2011 Wisconsin governor Scott Walker virtually eliminated collective bargaining in state government. In 2012 Michigan governor Rick Snyder passed a right-to-work law making union membership voluntary. So did former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. In 2013 Kansas governor Sam Brownback signed paycheck protection legislation requiring government unions to get their members’ permission before spending dues on politics.

These reforms gave workers more control over their money while reducing costs for taxpayers. But they reduced union power: Union leaders want paying their onerous dues to be mandatory. They collect billions that way. And government unions want the legal power to bargain over government spending. So unions poured $300 million into defeating the governors and legislators who supported these changes. (Most of that money came from forced dues.)

Yet on election night, the unions came up empty. Scott Walker won reelection handily, while both houses of the Wisconsin legislature became even more conservative. Michigan governor Rick Snyder also won a comfortable reelection — and not one legislator who voted for right-to-work lost. Kansas governor Sam Brownback won a second term with an even larger legislative majority.

In fact, the only politicians unions targeted who lost was Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett — a Republican governor who had made it clear he would not touch labor reforms. Meanwhile Illinois voters elected businessman Bruce Rauner on a platform of reining in government unions.

This does not mean that voters endorsed everything Walker, or Snyder, or Brownback did. Many factors influenced the election, of course. But the elections results do show that labor reforms like Walker’s and right-to-work don’t cost votes. Exit polls showed most Wisconsin voters view government unions unfavorably; Limiting collective bargaining in government hardly turned them off. In Michigan David Crim, a senior consultant for the Michigan Education Association (a state teachers’ union), admitted that right-to-work didn’t motivate people to vote against Governor Snyder.

“I do not believe that on November 4th when people go to the polls they are going to say ‘you know what, I am going to decide who I am going to vote for, for governor, for the legislature, any office on the ballot based on the right-to-work law that was passed,”’ he said.

The law should not force workers to pay union dues. Nor should it give unions a monopoly on the governments’ labor force. Tuesday’s results show that unions lack the power to defeat politicians who pass better labor laws. Unions opposing right-to-work, it turns out, can’t deliver on their threats.

 - James Sherk is the senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

Originally appeared in NRO's "The Corner"