PoliGraph: Seide claim on unions holds up

As a battle over public employee bargaining rights rages in Wisconsin, Minnesota labor leaders are touting the positive effects of union membership.

For instance, Eliot Seide, Executive Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, defended the benefits of unionization during an interview with MPR News last week:

“The 10 states where [unions are] most dense, the poverty rate is lower, health care is better, household income is higher, education spending per pupil is higher, and frankly the quality of life is better because trade unions in this country – public and private – have created the middle class and are essential to a democracy in this country.”

Seide’s facts are correct and comparisons are fair. But whether unions lead to a better quality of life is another story.

The Evidence

Seide is comparing states with the largest percentage of unionized workers, which include New York, Alaska and Washington, to states with the lowest percentage, which include South Dakota, Oklahoma and a handful of southern states.

According to Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Seide’s comparisons are all correct. For instance, the average annual median income in states with robust unions is $56,412, while states with sparse unionization have an average median income of $43,816. Poverty rates in these states tend to be lower and more people have health care coverage.

Coincidence? Yes and no.

Labor academics and economists agree that it is misleading to imply that unions are responsible for creating a better quality of life, because there are many other factors that lead to higher income and lower poverty rates.

That said, labor experts also noted that unions have historically supported and backed politicians who support policies that lead, for instance, to higher education spending; public employee unions have long pushed for more education dollars because their members, namely public school teachers, benefit from such spending increases.

The Verdict

This is a tough claim to rate because of Seide’s concluding assertion — that unions are responsible for a better quality of life. It’s simply an overstatement. Still, his facts are accurate and comparisons are correct. It’s also accurate to say that unions have played a role in shaping public policy, including efforts to increase education spending and lower the poverty rate.

So with those important caveats, Seide’s claim passes the PoliGraph test.


Minnesota Public Radio, Midday, Feb. 25, 2011

The AFL-CIO, Right to Work for Less, accessed March 1, 2011

AFSCME, Minnesota Council 5, Why Unions?, accessed March 1, 2011

The AFL-CIO, Unions Raise Wages for All Worker, accessed March 1, 2011

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by state, accessed Mar. 1, 2011

The U.S. Census Bureau, Income data, 2009, accessed March 1, 2011

The U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009, Sept. 2010

The U.S. Census Bureau, Health Insurance Coverage Status by State for All People: 2009, accessed March 1, 2011

The U.S. Census Bureau, Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data, accessed March 1, 2011

The Washington Post, How Do Unions Affect State Spending and Taxation?, by Ezra Klein, Feb. 25, 2011

Interview, Jennifer Munt, spokesperson, AFSCME Council 5

Interview, Morris Kleiner, professor, The Humphrey School of Public Affairs, The

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, March 2, 2011

Interview, Alex Keyssar, professor, The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, March 1, 2011

Interview, Daniel DiSalvo, professor, The City College of New York – CUNY, March 2, 2011

Interview, Richard Levins, professor emeritus, Department of Applied Economics, The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, March 1, 2011


The Humphrey School

  • Kathleen Farber

    One thing about this article that I find faulty in reasoning is that it assumes everyone’s motivation is self serving greed. I got in to public employment 34 years ago because I wanted a job where I was contributing to society–helping people, not just making widgits or bean counting somewhere. One of the reasons public employees (such as teachers and social workers) lobby to keep funding for schools and safety nets, etc. is because being on the front line every day–we know what the conditions are out there–we know people NEED the services we provide–we hear the horror stories everyday — if our elected officials and the members of the public heard the conversations I have everyday with the working poor, being evicted from their homes, going without food and medical care, etc. they might find some compassion and think about the outcome of not providing these services. There isnt a day when I go to work and my phone doesnt ring and nobody wants my help.