Episode 67: The Desperate Political Game of Union Bosses

Michael Schaus

This interview originally aired in 2022. We’re sharing it again today in celebration of National Employee Freedom Week. For more information about National Employee Freedom Week, please visit https://employeefreedomweek.com

Free to Offend Episode 67 | Guest: Aaron Withe, Freedom Foundation

As unionization rates continue to decline across the nation, union bosses are getting increasingly political in an effort to reverse the trend.

Freedom Foundation Chief Executive Officer Aaron Withe joined the program to talk about the political business model both private-sector and public-sector unions are using to increase their revenue – and why such methods are not only a danger to taxpayers, but also bad for workers themselves.

Read the Transcript

Aaron Withe: Unions like SEIU are using their funds to go out and unionize places like Starbucks because they see it as a long-term play for them.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Workers of the world unite, right? Isn’t that the saying? We’re going to be talking a little bit about unionization, about public sector unions, private sector union, and right to work. And to help us kind of sift through some of it I’m very pleased to welcome Aaron Withe. He’s the Chief Executive Officer of the Freedom Foundation. Aaron, thank you so much for joining us today.

Aaron Withe: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Michael Schaus: So, explain a little bit for folks who might not know what the Freedom Foundation does or what you guys are you know, kind the brief little elevator pitch. What is it that you guys do? Why do you exist?

Aaron Withe: Sure. So, the Freedom Foundation, we exist to advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited accountable government. It’s one of those very broad and generic mission statements, but what we really exist to do is remove the influence of government unions from politics.

Government unions are the biggest political contributors in America. They give basically 99% of their money to radical liberal candidates to go and promote their agenda. And really no one has come in between that arrangement. So, the Freedom Foundation exists to put the power back in the hands of working people and out of the hands of radical union bosses.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. First of all, you guys have a huge task ahead of you. This is something we’ve talked about a lot. Everybody crows about special interests, whether it’s in the state legislature or even in Congress. You know, they always complain about special interest groups. The biggest special interest of all is government itself, usually leveraged through public sector unions.

These are the folks that push for things like higher taxes, more spending. And I kind of feel like people got a crash course during Covid on exactly that, when you saw things like the teachers’ unions fighting tooth and nail to keep schools closed. Do you think this is something that’s starting to resonate with people? People look at it and go, “Oh yeah, these aren’t these benevolent pro teacher organizations or pro-cop organizations. They’ve got a political agenda as well.”Right?

Aaron Withe: Yeah, you’re exactly right. I think when unions begun, they were kind of this good thing. They were there to prevent slave labor, prevent child labor, and all the rest of it in the private sector primarily.

But what happens over the course of time is that government unions, they found an interest in the size of government. So, when you’re a government union, you represent state workers or teachers or whatever it may be. You have an inherent interest in the size of government. So, what happened is they started giving money to liberal candidates that went out and agreed to go and raise taxes on the private sector.

And then with that additional tax revenue, hire more public employees, and therefore they could take more union dues for more public employees. And then of course, they’d give more money to liberal politicians to go out and do that. So, it’s this system that they kind of created that over the course of decades now, their political agenda has gone far past taxing your everyday private citizens.

But now they’ve got this whole social component to it. Of course, the last couple of years, the big talking point has been the teachers’ unions and how they successfully kept our kids out of schools and made them wear masks. And really what we’re starting to find now through studies, not only basically killed their chances of getting education, but they were actually killing their mental health in particular.

So yeah, I think that government unions over the course of time have got progressively and progressively further to the left. And people, parents in particular, are waking up to that.

Michael Schaus: I feel like it was kind of an inevitability when we started talking about government sector unions because in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago. I mean, FDR fought against the idea of government sector unions and even union bosses themselves in the early part of the 20th century. He said you cannot unionize public sector workers, because in the private sector, a union is fighting against the supposed corporate greed of their employer.

Well, there are no profits in the public sector, and the so-called owners are us, the taxpayers. So, it only makes sense that you’ve got somebody like Randi Weingarten of the teachers’ union out there effectively lobbying against moms. I mean, in order to get her way, it’s weird. And I do think that Covid opened up an opportunity for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought of this bad aspect of public sector unions to suddenly start thinking about it.

There was a brief moment at the beginning of COVID there where I thought, Ooh, we might have an opportunity. Because you had the Black Lives Matter protests going on and these folks were very upset with police unions. And then at the same time we shut down all these schools and all of a sudden normal people were upset with the teachers’ unions. And I thought what an opportunity.

Do you think that there is kind of a shift changing in the public when it comes to how they view a lot of these public sector unions?

Aaron Withe: Yeah, I think. Absolutely. Like I said, parents are waking up to it. They see what the teacher’s union did to their kids’ education, and they’re voting.

I mean, you look at Terry McAuliffe and Glen Youngkin, that race in Virginia last year, the governor’s race over there. It was basically a referendum on the teachers’ union. That’s the way I saw it. It was parents saying that “No, I know more about my kids and their education than you, Randi Weingarten and the rest of these teachers’ unions. And that is what is happening across America, not just with parents, but also teachers.

I mean, the way that you combat government unions is defund them at the source. So, we run a campaign to educate every single public employee. Every single teacher in America has their rights to opt out of their unions and stop paying those union dues and both the biggest teachers unions in America last year suffered net three percent declines in their membership. That’s the largest we’ve ever seen of the teacher’s union.

So not only does it tell me that parents are waking up and voting, but teachers are getting out and they’re leaving the unions. And then to go one step further, there’s a lot of students are actually leaving public schools and going to charter schools where they have that option, private schools where they have that option and homeschooling and these learning pods as well.

So, I think during Covid, you’re absolutely right. People recognized the opportunity to get their kids a better education and not something that’s being ran by these teachers’ unions.

Michael Schaus: Well, and I’m kind of curious because you touched on something, you know, teachers or public sector union members who are opting out of union membership.

You know, since the Janus decision, every public sector union in the country has this ability now in theory to opt out of their union. And here in Nevada, we’ve been talking about this for years. I mean, we started an opt out campaign forever ago. And what we’ve seen is a lot of teachers really don’t want to be paying $800 in dues to the local teachers’ union because they don’t feel like they’re getting value for their money.

I mean, it’s, you know, forget politics for a minute. They’re just looking at it, saying, “What am I spending 800 bucks for?” And so, we’ve seen, you know, in the largest school district in Nevada, Clark County School District, almost half the teachers don’t pay union dues.

And I’ve been trying to think about this for a long time, cause over the last 50 years the private sector union membership has been declining and they’ve been moving towards the public sector. And now with this kind of effectively right to work mentality in the public sector nationwide, what do you think is the long-term trajectory of unions? I mean, to me, you see the desperation of Randi Weingarten and some of these folks. It almost feels like a last dying gasp from the institution that nobody really wants anything to do with.

Aaron Withe: Yeah, I mean, what we’re seeing is declines. We’ve seen declining private sector union membership for a long time now. We’re finally starting to see declines in the government sector as well, which is a good thing. Like I said, that’s putting the power back in the hands of people and out of the hands of these radical union bosses.

What we’re seeing now, and what is being talked about a lot in the news is unionization of places like Amazon, Starbucks, and these other private sector, large corporations. What is not being talked about in the news is that they are actually using public sector union resources to go and unionize these places.

And I’ll give you an example. Your average Starbucks, they have something like 20 employees there and a union would collect on average, anywhere from $50 to 80 in union dues a month from these Starbucks workers. The cost to go and unionize one of these places is anything from $40 to 50,000.

They are using unions like SEIU are using their funds to go out and unionize places like Starbucks because they see it as a long-term play for them. Nobody is talking about that because I don’t think that they see it as sustainable in the government sector to continue having the membership rates they have because so many public employees are leaving.

Michael Schaus: Well, and it’s kind of their own damn fault, basically, because, you know, when they get that political, you’ve got, not everybody working in government thinks monolithically about politics. That was the entire premise of the Janus decision was, “Hey, I don’t want to subsidize your political behavior.”

You know, it is interesting that nobody’s talking about the public sector unions helping to prop up the private sector. The thing that I have noticed is that they seem to be moving less and less from, you know, trying to persuade people that unionization is a good thing. I mean, 20 years ago even, everybody seemed to be pretty positive about unions and you know, think pretty good things about unions. Now that’s kind of shifted.

And so, it almost seems like they’re trying to, “Alright, how do we get government to force people to unionize?” And they’ve talked about things like repealing right to work on a national level.

I mean, one of the biggest challenges I think we face from a PR standpoint when we’re out there trying to talk to people about unions is most people don’t even understand right to work. It sounds kind of scary to them. They’ve kind of, you know, bought into some of the propaganda from the unions said, “oh, it means your employer can fire you for whatever reason or something.” What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the pro individual worker movements if that’s what we can call ourselves.

Aaron Withe: The biggest challenge is that government unions in particular have spent decades building a multi-billion-dollar monopoly. And I mean that quite literally, in that they have a monopoly on taking public employees’ money from their paychecks and funneling it into the campaigns of liberals.

So that is a huge obstacle to overcome. They literally spend billions of dollars each election cycle on lobbying, political grants, and political contributions to their candidates. Unraveling that is not going to happen overnight. And on top of that, they use this power to force people to continue to be members of unions.

I tell people they lie, they cheat, and they steal. They lie to their members by telling them that they have to belong. And if the members find out that they don’t have to belong, then they cheat by putting deceptive fine print in their membership cards that basically stops their ability from being able to leave the union and stop paying those union dues. And then they steal by, in instances where people get out, they forge these signatures on their membership cards to force them to pay union dues until they get caught which is what the Freedom Foundation has caught them doing on the West coast on multiple occasions and had to sue them over. So that’s how desperate these unions are becoming.

I think that if a union were to get smart today, they’d start operating like a trade association. They would start to provide their be members benefits that outweigh the cost of membership. I mean, that’s ultimately what a business should be doing. But instead, they take billions of dollars and spend it on politics, which is totally the wrong response with how to direct your customers money.

Michael Schaus: Well, and you kind of just answered this question because this was going to be my next one, was you know, a lot of people when they hear us talking about unions or public sector unions, you know, they just default to, “oh well you just hate workers,” or “you’re just, you know, corporate chill and you want Jeff Bezos to have a new yacht or something.”

Those arguments obviously never really made a whole lot of sense to me, but they do seem to be effective with some folks. And so, you know, my question to you would be, how would you view a good union? I mean, what would you describe as a good union, private or public sector?

You know, is there a role for them? Well, I know my answer, but what’s your answer? Like, what would you see as a good Union? A union that you think, okay, this should be the model for the rest of the unions in the nation.

Aaron Withe: Yeah. Local and voluntary, I mean that’s the answer. They should be out there to provide benefits to their membership that outweighs the cost of membership. And that should be voluntary. People should want to be a member of the union. If they don’t, they should be allowed to leave. That, that’s the bottom line.

We go on at the teachers’ unions, right? I mean the teachers unions and their radical political viewpoints and all the rest of it. Quite honestly, a lot of the actual local teachers’ associations, they operate just great. For teachers that want to collectively bargain, they have an attorney that they bring in to go and bargain with the school district. Usually, their political spending is next to none. But what happens is they get unionized by the statewide affiliate and the national affiliate. And they take 90% of the dollars from these teachers.

I used to be our Oregon director and my wife used to teach in Salem-Keizer School District, which is the capital of Oregon. And we got a breakdown of the union dues that were being spent. Over 90% of it was going to the national union and the statewide union. 10% of it was going to the local union, and that was the part that was actually negotiating the contract and representing these teachers in disputes with the employer.

If they’re going to be unions, those are the type of unions that should exist, not these national conglomerates.

Michael Schaus: The voluntary bit is what’s key for me because, you know, as a very libertarian guy, if you were to talk to me about the basics of unionization, there’s not really a whole lot there for me to object to. You know, the idea of a bunch of workers decide to get together and kind of use their collective power to demand things of their employer. I’m like, sure, that sounds fine.

And, and I think that’s where a lot of Americans were, especially, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. That’s not what it is now. I mean, as you point out, there’s the lying, cheating, and stealing portion of it. But also, the way the rules are set up, if somebody wants to try to unionize Amazon or a new casino or something, the rules are very much in the union’s favor.

So, it’s a very unbalanced playing field at this point between unions. Which is I think part of the reason why you see them trying so hard throughout the states. I mean, here in the last legislative session (it might have been the session before that) here in Nevada, state workers got the right to collect bargain.

The reason why they got that was because the unions realized we need to do something to get more members because apparently, we’re not getting enough, you know, casino workers or teachers or something. We got to spread out.

So, they’re using the power of government just as big business does. And I think maybe that’s something that, you know, we’ve got to point out to the people who are on more of the political left, who generally support unionization. We’ve got to point out look, they’re using government the same way that all those evil corporations use it that you hate.

I look forward and I look kind of longer term and I think I feel pretty optimistic about all this because people are already getting tired of it. I mean, teachers are already getting tired of saying, “Wait a minute, how come I get paid based on seniority rather than what I’m actually producing, value I’m giving to the district?” Do you feel relatively optimistic, or do you feel like this is going to be just, you know, one really long slog that that’s going to, you know, linger on, linger on forever? You know, how do you feel looking forward, say 5, 10, 15 years?

Aaron Withe: I’m bullish. Government unions political spending is decreasing every single year, and that is a direct result of more people, more teachers and other public employees leaving their unions.

Case study, I mentioned Oregon before. We at the Freedom Foundation have done a lot of work in Oregon. So much so that we’ve managed to help 40% of all state workers leave their union. And we’ve helped almost a quarter of the teachers in the state leave their unions.

So, we’ve seen these big membership declines happen across the board with unions in Oregon as their membership goes down. But the result of that has been that politically unions are spending 70% less money in political races than they were before.

So, when we took a look at these numbers, and we basically came to the decision that we have to replicate what we’ve done in Oregon nationally. Because the market is there for people that want to leave their unions. They just have no idea that they can. So, we have to go and educate every single one of them in order to leave. And then you start to get 40 and 50% of these people leaving their unions. And that’s when the union bosses are looking at each other like, “no, we actually need to start providing benefits to our members.”

I’ll make one more point. The National Education Association, they spend less than 8.5% of their budget on representing their members. Over 50% of it goes to political contributions, grants and contributions to other nonprofits and lobbying. So, you could not run a private sector business where you spend less than 9% of your budget on actually providing services to your clients. You’d be out of business in a week.

Michael Schaus: It’s a political action committee masquerading as an employee services organization. Now, what would you say to folks who, maybe some of the pro-union teachers or something, “Well, look especially when it comes to government sector unions such as teachers unions, they have to spend it on politics spend politicians are our employers effectively.” You know, what do you say to those folks who say it has to be political because it is a government union?

Aaron Withe: You can’t on both sides of the aisle, which is effectively what they’re doing. When you are paying for the campaign of the politician that you are putting on the opposite side of the aisle to you, when you are negotiating a contract, nobody at that table is representing the taxpayer. Those are the people that are getting screwed up in that arrangement. Because what’s going to happen is you’re going to agree on whatever’s going to cost the taxpayer more money, not necessarily what is most beneficial to what the government should be providing services to, which again, is the taxpayer.

Those should be the people represented at that table, not the unions and whatever their agenda may be. Ultimately, they’re a private sector business. You know what they care about? They care about raising more money, raising more revenue than they did the year before, and they’ll do that at whatever costs to the taxpayer.
You look at states like California and the, the massive budget deficits that they are in. They are a direct result of unions being able to buy politicians that are going to go out and screw the taxpayer.

Michael Schaus: That’s probably one of the biggest things is not having taxpayer representation at the union negotiations. I mean, this is something that we’ve talked about a lot in Nevada. The union negotiations, when the unions sit down with the school board and they work out, you know, all the perks for teachers and stuff, that’s closed doors. We the taxpayers can’t even sit in the same room, let alone, you know, actually take an active part in the negotiations.

I notice that when I’m talking to people who are not already, you know, skeptical of public sector unions, when you start talking about teachers’ unions, they think about teachers. When you start talking about police unions, they think about the cop actually walking the street at night or something. Same thing with firefighters. You know, how do we overcome that?

Aaron Withe: I think, number one, you recognize, it’s stating that these public employees are not their unions. They do not represent their interests at a lot of times, and a lot of these members or non-members don’t agree with the union’s agenda. So, separating the two, you have to do that because otherwise, yeah, you’re right. No one wants to defund teachers. We don’t want to see teachers out on the streets, jobless. We want to see good teachers working in our classrooms.

But also realize that even in the government sector, we want our highest performing public employees. We shouldn’t settle for less than that. The whole defund the police movement was based on the assumption that the police were not performing to the right standards, and the left went crazy. Let’s replace police with teachers. Like I said, my wife is a public school teacher. She can tell you and me and everybody else, there are crappy teachers in her school that are not performing, that should be fired, that are impossible to fire.

And what happens there when you have these bad teachers is our kids’ education ultimately gets affected. And why are we as taxpayers going to settle for that? We absolutely shouldn’t. We wouldn’t settle for it without our police. We wouldn’t settle for it in the private sector industry. But somehow, we’re settling for it with something as important as our kids’ education.

And again, that is a direct result of the government union’s influence over our politicians.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and, and part of it too is, you absolutely nailed it when you were talking about bad teachers and good teachers. I forget who said it, but somebody said there are some teachers that are desperately overpaid, and there are some teachers that are desperately underpaid, and it’s not based on how long they’ve been working at the district.

That’s kind of been the challenge I think for a lot of teachers, especially when you look at like Clark County, they can’t hire a new teacher for the life of them. And that’s not because the pay is terribly low; it’s because it’s a horrible work environment.

No wonder half of them aren’t paying union dues because they’re looking around going, “This is a bad place to work. What am I paying $800 a year for?”

Aaron, if people want to follow what you guys are doing with the Freedom Foundation and take part and, and help out, where can they go to learn a little bit more?

Aaron Withe: Sure, go to freedomfoundation.com. That’s our website. If you’re a public employee listening, optouttoday.com. We have a website set up and a team dedicated especially for helping public employees to get out of their unions. We operate all over America, so we’re helping public employees all over the country. We’re on all the social media channels and, and all the rest of it as well.

Michael Schaus: Perfect. Well, we really appreciate it. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Aaron Withe: Yeah. Thank you for having me on.

Michael Schaus: Again, Aaron Withe, Chief Executive Officer of the Freedom Foundation. You know, one of the big takeaways here is just the kind of mission creep or the mission drift, if you will, of what unions are supposed to do and what unions currently are doing.

I mean, you know, Aaron pointed out way back, once upon a time, unions started off as a very good thing. You know, work conditions were horrible and individual employees did not have a whole lot of power because everybody was looking for a job. But that’s not what unions do nowadays.

If unions were smart, especially whether it’s public sector, private sector, what have you, the unions that are actually going to survive are going to be the ones that reorient their business and say, “look, we’re less focused on being a political action committee, and we’re more focused on what exactly do you the worker need.”

It doesn’t even have to be a union in order to do that. In fact, as far as teachers are concerned, there’s a handful of organizations that basically act as trade associations. They give teachers resources so that way they can do their job better. They offer liability insurance. They provide tangible benefits and usually for fraction of the price of what a teacher would normally pay in union dues.

Pointing out kind of an objective argument here, by the way, this is one of the reasons why Culinary union, for example, is so strong in Nevada. Not only do they have a lot of members, but a lot of members feel like they get good benefits from Culinary. You know, Culinary will hold certain health clinics. They do the flu shot every year, something like that. But they’re giving their members something very tangible that says, “Hey, this is part of what you’re paying for.”

They’re kind of an outlier though. A lot of unions don’t do that, especially in the public sector where they collect all sorts of dues and then they spend all of it on political goals. And that has got to be one of the big reasons why unions are scared right now. Because a lot of public sector workers are realizing, “Hey, you guys aren’t really looking out for me. You’re looking out for your own business model. You know what, I’m not going to pay that $800 every single year.”.

So again, check out the Freedom Foundation, see what they do.

You can also go to npri.org, that’s Nevadapolicy.org and take a look at what Nevada policy does every year. Of course, they help lead some opt out efforts for teachers and they’re constantly talking about Right to work and what have you. So again, Nevadapolicy.org.

You can also go to Nevadapolicy.org/podcast, and there you can not only sign up to receive all these podcasts right in your inbox, but you can also let us know if you think there are any good guests or topics that you want us to cover here on the podcast. So again, Nevadapolicy.org/podcast. Thank you so much for listening. This has been Free to Offend.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.