Letter: Column on union influence ignores larger dynamics

By Bill Burke /

While I agree with some points offered in John Costa’s Dec. 8 column, “What Unions Are Due,” I found the analysis and opinion to be somewhat limited and ideologically bound. The column references, in large part, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “The Bully Pulpit,” a well-documented history of the relationships and dynamics between Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, the role of the print media in exposing corruption and undue influence at business/union/politician levels, the valuation of greed over public interest, antitrust issues and related matters.

The column argues to limit organized labor’s right to support elective candidates. Costa opines that unions “pour pre-emptive sums of money into campaigns” while he overlooks the similar and frequently greater contributions from business, interest groups and individuals with serious cash. One wonders, what would be considered a “pre-emptive” contribution from a corporation, wealthy individual or environmental group? Is there a threshold? If that threshold were reached, would we see a similar editorial criticism on The Bulletin’s opinion page?

Criticism of labor’s rights and potential influence would carry more weight if the column also demonstrated opposition to contributions and influence from other quarters. That would be fair and accurate. There would still be a great problem, however. To do so would be to suggest that First Amendment rights and Supreme Court decisions (i.e., Citizens United) be ignored as the law of the land. While no great fan of Citizens United, I have also come to accept that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, which sounds like something that a “progressive” Republican like Theodore Roosevelt would say.

Part of the argument is to limit public employee/organized labor’s contributions without specific approval from members. This is understandable to some extent. I really do not appreciate other people using my money to support candidates or issues with which I disagree. At the same time, I cannot recall ever being contacted by companies in which I have invested asking for my permission to support selected candidates or causes. I do not recall the nonprofits or special interest groups asking either, for that matter. So, why advocate that this standard be applied only to public employees?

As the influence and membership in organized labor has dwindled, in some cases quite understandably, and with the increasing financial challenges facing government entities, labor is often a simplistic and easy target for blame and simple solutions while ignoring larger dynamics and facts. Unfortunately, the “What Unions Are Due” column jumps on that bandwagon. Others, however, believe that citizens have less to fear from organized labor and a level playing field for everyone than they have to fear from excessive individual and corporate wealth and selected interest groups.

Ironically, one of the main “take aways” of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book is the vital role and potential value of the media in presenting the whole picture. This means critically analyzing the role, influence and behavior of all actors: organized labor, business, individuals, interest groups and politicians, regardless of how and where the chips may fall. To provide less than a thorough, balanced analysis does not serve the rich tradition of the role of the print media in our country.

— Bill Burke lives in Sunriver.

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