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Unions Promise Higher Pay, But Fail to Mention Higher Cost of Living, Higher Taxes

In Connecticut, where more public employees are unionized than in any other state, the average teacher earns about $76,500. That sounds pretty good! Until you realize that salary has to stretch to cover one of the highest tax burdens in the country, as well as higher childcare costs, higher prices at the gas pump, higher utility costs, and higher food costs.

When you factor in the cost of living, teachers in Connecticut earn about the same as teachers in Iowa or Wyoming, where fewer employees are covered by union contracts.

New York teachers, who earn about $58,600 when cost of living is factored in, earn $200 less a year than teachers in Texas.

Here’s what unions won’t tell public employees when they say unions deliver higher salaries – states where more public employees are union members also typically have higher taxes and are more expensive to live in, essentially wiping out the benefits of bigger paychecks.

When unions promote themselves as champions of public-sector employees, they often use misleading statistics to show unionized employees earn more money than non-unionized employees because they compare salaries across states without providing context.  

But when you factor in cost of living across metropolitan areas, the relationship between union power and higher salaries appears weak. One researcher found that collective bargaining made no difference to teachers’ salaries – the states where salaries were better had higher salaries before collective bargaining was even introduced.

There seems to be a much stronger relationship between union power and high taxes, which is unsurprising, given that the goal of many public-sector unions is to grow the size and cost of government because this gives the unions more money and power.

It turns out big labor and big government go hand in hand.

This is especially true in an era when union organizers have struggled to attract private sector workers to their cause. Labor’s latest failure in Alabama to unionize Amazon workers is just one example of how private sector workers don’t want to buy what the union is selling.

The public sector is an entirely different story, because unions can turn to friendly politicians to help them organize employees. The tension that exists between labor and management in the private sector doesn’t hold in the public sector.

In the public sector, unions help elect the politicians who they then sit across the bargaining table from. In the 2020 election cycle, unions spent more than $250 million on federal races, and even more on state and local races. And – despite what union officials often tell public employees – much of that spending comes from members’ regular dues.

But many public employees don’t want what the union is selling either, as evidenced by the thousands of complaints across the country filed by public employees against unions.

Many of those employees want out because they don’t like what the unions do with their money – including their efforts to lobby for higher taxes, as they have done in places like New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut just this year.

As a pro-union journalist recently said in an email newsletter: “Unions are deeply political institutions. They already engage in nonstop political action.”

Yes, they are, and they do.

Public employees deserve to better understand the relationship between union lobbying and higher taxes. There are studies that show the connection between union strength and the higher cost of government, but this is an area of study that could use greater scrutiny.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.