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Organized labor’s influential ways are changing

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

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SPRINGFIELD – For years organized labor has boasted its strength in numbers, but as its membership has dwindled, increasingly its political clout has come in the form of dollars going to politicians. 

In fact, between 2005 and 2011, the number of union workers in Illinois has dropped from 927,000 to 876,000. Despite the 5.5 percent membership drop, the amount of money Illinois unions have given to politicians has increased 41 percent during the same period.

“Unions aren’t persuading people to join, so the only way they can exert influence is through lobbying and political campaigns,” said my Illinois Policy Institute colleague, Paul Kersey.

Kersey, director of labor policy, just wrote “The Labor Book, a Guide to Illinois Government Unions.” It gives a better understanding of diverse issues such as school reform, taxation, government spending and pension transformation.

In all of these issues, unions exert disproportionate influence on the legislative process.

And as Labor Day approaches, it’s important to remember that the makeup of organized labor has changed.

As Kersey notes in his book, in 1983, 75 percent of all Illinois union members worked in the private sector. Today, that number has dropped to 56 percent.

Marketplace pressures have reduced union membership in private industry, but so far in Illinois government unions have been protected from such forces, Kersey said.

“It’s hard to know if government workers really want to be a part of the union,” he said. “Right now, they are forced to pay dues to the union.”

And it’s even harder to know if rank-and-file union members agree with how union bosses allocate their dues.

It is from these workers that money flows into union political activism. And union bosses heading the committees decide what politicians to aid.

The problem with these hefty PAC donations is that government union leaders are negotiating with the very people whose campaigns they are funding.  

This is one reason the Illinois state pension systems are the worst funded in the nation.

Union bosses are perpetuating an unfair atmosphere for workers in Illinois. It’s high time Illinois lawmakers freed up workers, allowing them to make their own choices when it comes to whether to support a union.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute.

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