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Kneale: Obama's Unholy Union—With Unions

President Obama is losing friends left and right these days.

Moderate Dems to his right are getting queasy over just how liberal and profligate some of his policies turn out to be. Ultra-liberals to his left are miffed he isn't even more liberal.

President Barack Obama
Photo by: Pete Souza
President Barack Obama

Even Democrats in Congress are backing away from their once-Teflonic leader. Sen. Christopher Dodd just criticized the President publicly for playing politics in his abruptly escalated effort to further constrain the biggest banks. What Dodd tacitly implied: Obama’s bank bashing was a sulky and cynical reaction to the humiliation in Massachusetts.

Not to worry. President Obama still has one unstinting and stalwart comrade: the unions. After decades in inexorable and well-deserved decline, unions are back bigtime in the Obama-nation.

It is an unholy union. It’s bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for our country. Worse, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, this alliance could lead to bigger government at all levels, which will require higher taxes on everyone (not just the top 5 percent of earners, those grossing $155,000 or more, who already pay 60 percent of federal income tax).

And most of all, this rebirth of union clout is utterly undeserved. Unions represent a measly 7 percent of all workers in the private sector and 12.3 percent of all workers (private and government). That is down by two-thirds from a peak of 35.4 percent in 1954, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Yet union officials get invited to the White House more often than Republican leaders and CEOs (except for, maybe, the bank chiefs who are summoned to the woodshed for another Presidential beating). A union man sits on the congressional oversight committee on the TARP bailout, though labor has no dog in this fight.

And let’s not forget Bam’s $59 billion gift to the unions in Obamacare. One version of the health care overhaul would exempt union members, for a period of years, from a new tax on the most lavish, gold-plated health plans, those costing more than $20,000 annually per family.

It is hard to say which is more irritating: that the Obama Posse inserted this provision to pay off the unions for campaigning for him, forcing that $59 billion burden onto others; or that millions of rank-and-file union members are covered by health plans so overly generous that they rate right up there with insurance for “the rich.”

No wonder the union-dominated Big Three automakers sank into an abyss of red ink ... and two of them went begging to the feds for TARP life-support.

Let’s be blunt about it: Unions hurt profits, and that hurts stock prices. The typical union salary is 20 percent to 30 percent higher than the pay for a comparable job in a non-union shop, BLS data show.

Labor clings to inefficient rules that coddle dues-paying members at the cost of efficiency and common sense: Teamster rules that force trucking companies to cover the pension obligations of rivals that go bankrupt; old newspaper union rules that forced Daily News trucks in New York to leave the plant half-empty; United Auto Workers contracts that, even as the bailout crisis unfolded a year ago, still paid laid-off workers their full salaries for doing nothing.

My personal axe to grind: I grew up in Florida, a “right-to-work” state where you actually have a choice of whether to join a union that bargains with your employer. (Elsewhere, you don’t.) When I was a college intern at the union-dominated Detroit News, I was told not to eat lunch at my desk because it would upset the union shop steward. When the Teamsters were threatening to strike that summer, I planned to cross the picket line—I needed the bylines—and a guy warned me, “The Teamsters will crack your head open.”

If unions had a good product to “sell,” their membership should have swelled, rather than diminished, in the past four decades. But union ranks peaked in 1979 at 21 million and total are down to 15.4 million today—even though the U.S. economy is five times as large as it was 30 years ago. Since 1979 we have seen the explosion of high-tech, the fastest-growth industry in the world. Yet unions are all but non-existent in Silicon Valley, in part because employers compensate, and treat, their workers well.

So the unions have turned, instead, to richer terrain for their growth: government at all levels. And that is the especially alarming element of President Obama’s cozying up to the labor movement.

In 2009, for the first time in our nation’s history, unions had more members in government (at the local, state and federal levels) than in the private sector, as The Wall Street Journal noted in an ominous editorial. That works out to almost 7.9 million government union members, versus 7.5 million private-sector union workers.

“This means government is the main playing field of modern unionism, which explains why the AFL-CIO and SEIU have become advocates for higher taxes and government expansion in cities, states and Washington,” as The Journal aptly puts it.

The unions’ expansion into all levels of government already is having a pernicious impact. Today the average government job pays MORE than the average pay in the private sector.

At the federal level, average pay is now up to $71,206—76 percent higher than the private sector’s average pay of $40,331, USA Today reported in December. The paper found that 19 percent of all civil servants now are paid $100,000 or more, up from only 14 percent at the start of the recession. At the Department of Transportation, only one worker earned $170,000 or more 18 months ago; today the DOT pays almost 1,700 people at that lofty level.

So what we have here, folks, is a coming clash between private industry and the government bureaucracy. It pits private citizens who know, all too well, the hardship of layoffs and pay cuts and pension reductions when the economy tumbles, against public workers who rarely get laid off and whose pensions are sacrosanct.

On which side of the bargaining table does President Obama sit — with the union workers, in fat government bureaucracies and old ailing industries, who helped him get elected? Or with the Real Majority — the rest of the people he was elected to represent?

My fear is that the answer is all too obvious, and it isn’t the right one.

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