December 29, 2013;La Crosse Tribune (Wisconsin State Journal)

Here is a prediction that you might not see anywhere else: Conservative foundations and conservative think tanks will put a major emphasis on attacking public sector unions.

For conservatives, public sector unions represent a political counterweight to the policy lobbying and electoral campaigning resources of corporate America. The Center for Responsive Politics has documented the extent of political contributions of public sector unions, hugely leaning toward Democratic candidates:


Overall union membership has been dropping precipitously in the U.S., down from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent of employed workers in 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The power of unions is really in the public sector, where 35.9 percent of workers belong to unions, as opposed to private industry, where only 6.6 of the labor force is in unions. The strength of public sector unions is particularly in local government, where 41.7 percent of workers belong to unions.

While congressional Republicans have spent fruitless time following Tea Party political obsessions, at the state level Republicans such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker have squared off against public sector unions as a more practical political agenda. Diminishing the power of public unions, especially teachers unions organized at the school district level, characterized a significant emphasis of the Walker administration, which it achieved in the 2011 passage of Act 10, the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” which limited public union collective bargaining largely to wage issues. Exempting police and other law enforcement unions, public sector employers were prohibited by the law from collecting union dues and public unions were prohibited from mandating the payment of union dues in collective bargaining units. As a result, public union membership plummeted in the year following the Act. For example, despite the challenges to Act 10’s constitutionality that are still in the courts, AFSCME Council 24’s count of dues-paying members dropped from 5,900 to 690 early in 2013, and Wisconsin State Employees Union membership fell from 22,000 to less than 10,000.

Teachers unions have also been taking a big hit. The Wisconsin Education Association Council’s membership is down about 30 percent from its total prior to Act 10 of 98,000. As the WEAC loses members, an alternative organization is growing. The Wisconsin chapter of the Association of American Educators is picking up members, though only on a pace to reach 1,000 members by the end of the school year. AAE spokesperson Alexandra Freeze predicts a much larger infusion of members once the courts issue their final rulings on Act 10’s constitutionality, which she thinks makes potential AAE members uncertain.

Unlike teachers unions, the AAE doesn’t represent teachers in collective bargaining and claims to be free of any political agendas or political activism. However, it does provide members with liability insurance, legal counsel in workplace employment issues, and teacher scholarships and grants. Essentially, these are services to teachers other than union representation—and at a membership cost of about $180 per year compared to a larger dues assessment typical of the teachers unions. Essentially, it is an alternative to what the AAE calls “forced unionism.”

However, the AAE’s non-political self-description is a little suspect. The organization does take positions “if a certain percentage of its members vote to take a position,” according to this article in the La Crosse Tribune. The AAE has come out in support of Act 10, Governor Walker as he fought a recall effort, lifting caps on fully funded charter schools, and expanding “virtual and blended education.” That is nothing less than a political agenda, no matter what the AAE calls it.

To be clear, the AAE is not simply a Wisconsin creation. It has existed nationally for a couple of decades and is funded by several conservative foundations, based on these grant amounts listed in the Foundation Center online database:


Grant totals

Grant years