Study Uncovers AFSCME’s Secret: Putting Politics First

The minds and matters behind the muscles of the Am. Fed’n of State, County & Mun. Employees have been examined in detail in a report released Mar. 6 by the Nat’l Taxpayers Union Fdn. “AFSCME lobbies on a wide array of issues – from opposing reform of welfare and Social Security to supporting higher taxes — that make the group a natural adversary of taxpayers and those concerned with limiting the role of government in the everyday lives of citizens,” said study author and NTUF Director of Programs Mark Schmidt. “While every union has a right to be politically active, members and taxpayers alike have a right to know the costs to our economy and electoral process.”

Among Schmidt’s findings:

  • During the 1997-98 election cycle, AFSCME’s political action committee gave almost $2.4 million to federal candidates (96% to Democrats) while the union contributed nearly $1.3 million in “soft money,” all to Democratic campaign committees. AFSCME outspent all other unions in the latter category. Four in ten union members now work in government.
  • Although the Supreme Court has ruled that union members cannot be forced to bankroll political activities, AFSCME has set up a Byzantine dues-refund process that requires objectors to list each partisan activity in which they believe the union has engaged, on a form that can only be sent by registered mail during a two-week period each year.
  • Despite postwar record tax burdens and budget surpluses, AFSCME has lobbied against even modest limitation measures, such as the Internet Tax Moratorium. The national union is a strident opponent of citizen Initiative and Referendum at the state level as well as privatization of local services — even though locals in Indianapolis, Chicago, and elsewhere have been able to adapt to privatization without fulfilling their earlier “prophecies of doom.”
  • AFSCME spearheads the “Invest in America Coalition” of 200 left-leaning groups that seek dramatically increased domestic spending, even though a significant percentage of the union’s own members identify themselves as conservatives or Republicans.
  • AFSCME fought against allowing individuals to invest their own Social Security funds because of “Wall Street Interests” — even though 68 percent of public employee pension funds are invested in the stock market. Although union leaders seem to believe that massive payroll tax hikes are necessary to keep Social Security the “most popular and successful social insurance program the federal government has ever created,” they have testified against forcing all state and local employees to participate in the system — because 1/4 of those workers would lose benefits they stand to enjoy under their current tax-funded plans.

Schmidt does acknowledge that due largely to union pressure tactics, the average weekly wage of state and local employees is 20 percent higher than their private sector counterparts. But he also determined that this windfall has come at a steep economic and political price to union members and taxpayers:


  • AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who made $369,000 in 1998, has admitted to making illegal contribution solicitations in the scandal-plagued 1996 Teamsters election. Because the Teamsters are under federal supervision, McEntee’s actions helped to invalidate an election that cost taxpayers $17 million.
  • Local AFSCME unions have come under criticism even from union sympathizers such as the Association for Union Democracy, due to lavish spending by leaders. One New York City local squandered more than $10 million in member dues on maid services, clothing, jewelry, a Manhattan penthouse suite, and a plantation-style house in Georgia.
  • As scandals at the local level unfolded, AFSCME spent between $2 million and $3 million on its luxurious 1998 national convention Honolulu. The union promptly raised members’ monthly dues to as high as $50, which President McEntee claimed was necessary to ensure that AFSCME “remains a clean union.”

Schmidt recommends that taxpayers and conscientious union members can work together to return the public-sector labor movement to a system that is more responsive and responsible to workers. A federal right-to-work law would shut off the forced-dues spigot and would go a long way towards breaking the cycle of corruption, he argues. AFSCME members must be able to take greater part in the day-to-day affairs of their union, and should be able to reject automatic withholding of dues. Voters should be made aware of public officials who have the courage to stand up to the powerful AFSCME political bosses.

“With new technologies and market forces changing the way public services are delivered, America is at a crossroads,” Schmidt concluded. “Our system can either become one held hostage by indifferent public employee union leaders, or it can encourage efforts to streamline costs and foster competition that ultimately benefits everyone. The path working Americans choose will determine the level of taxes we all pay in the 21st Century, as well as the health of our democratic system.”