The recent strike by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has again put public sector unions in conservatives' crosshairs. While there is plenty to debate about unions, one of the weirdest talking points suggests that public sector unions have an unfair advantage since they negotiate with officials they may have helped get elected. The money spent on these officials earns them political favors or better contracts, or so goes the theory.
If we are to assume that these elected officials are providing a return on investment for the unions, which certainly may be true, it is odd that conservatives' main concern is how money from unions affects outcomes rather than questioning the entire system.
For example, businesses outspend labor unions by an astonishing 15 to 1 margin. Are we to believe that when a union helps get a person elected they receive favors while the same help from the business community is completely altruistic? Does anyone really think that the nearly $110 million in contributions the pharmaceutical industry made over the last three election cycles had no impact on the Affordable Care Act? Would we really be as focused on the events in Israel were it not for the $67 million in contributions from pro-Israeli groups?
If money in politics is a problem, then it is a system-wide problem with the heaviest hitters coming from the business community.
The complaint is that contributions from these industry sources have less impact since they aren't directly dealing with the decision makers. Yet it could easily be argued that the $209 million that lawyers and law firms contributed in the 2012 election cycle - a significant portion of which went to getting local judges elected - would have a direct impact on the outcome of cases these lawyers bring before the judges they helped get elected.
It also wouldn't be a stretch to think that the $73 million in contributions from the oil industry in the last election cycle has something to do with the $4 billion in subsidies they receive even though they had around $120 billion in profits.
And who would be surprised to find out that some of the nearly $30 million in contributions from the defense industry influenced the outcomes of the government contracts that were awarded?
Beyond that, what proof do conservatives offer that public sector unions are getting sweetheart deals in exchange for their contributions? Census data shows that between 2009 and 2011 in the 25 states controlled by Republicans, public sector jobs increased in 15 states. Conversely only five of the 18 states controlled by Democrats added public sector jobs. This means Republican-held states were twice as likely to add public sector jobs as Democrat-held states.
States with the lowest percentage of union members happened to add more public sector jobs than the states with the highest union membership levels. If public unions were getting such a great deal on their contributions, one would expect this data to skew in the opposite direction.
Political parties and their corporate sponsors have made unsubstantiated hysteria the new norm in political discourse. Unfortunately, this means that we get groups devoted to a narrative that is not supported by data. The reality is that the election buying freedom killing power of unions pales considerably in comparison with their corporate counterparts. And while money in politics is probably a bad thing, making unions the basis for this argument shows just how disingenuous some conservatives are in their supposed concern.