The Case Against Public Sector Unions
Playing off the ongoing story out of Wisconsin, Professor Bainbridge makes a strong argument against the very existence of public sector labor unions:
In effect, public sector unionism thus means that representatives of the union will often be on both sides of the collective bargaining table. On the one side, the de jure union leaders. On the other side, the bought and paid for politicians. No wonder public sector union wages and benefits are breaking the back of state budgets. They are bargaining with themselves rather than with an arms’-length opponent.
Even if the public’s representatives at the collective bargaining table are not de facto union representatives, the nature of public sector collective bargaining inherently leads to inefficiencies.
In sum, public sector unionism lacks the economic justifications for private sector unionism. It results in significant distortions of the political process, which have real adverse consequences for the taxpayers. What’s happening in Wisconsin (as ably monitored by University of Wisconsin law professor/blogger Ann Althouse) thus is quite heartening. The efforts by the Governor and the republican legislative caucus to reform public sector collective bargaining rights is an essential step towards fiscal sanity and political democracy.
Bainbridge’s argument isn’t a new one. In fact., it was made more than 70 years ago by Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
Roosevelt’s reign certainly was the bright dawn of modern unionism. The legal and administrative paths that led to 35% of the nation’s workforce eventually unionizing by a mid-1950s peak were laid by Roosevelt.
But only for the private sector. Roosevelt openly opposed bargaining rights for government unions.
“The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, “I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place” in the public sector. “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”
And if you’re the kind of guy who capitalizes “government,” woe betide such obstructionists.
Indeed, for many years, the very idea of public sector workers being able to organize and force the government to bargain with their representatives was largely rejected:
Courts across the nation also generally held that collective bargaining by government workers should be forbidden on the legal grounds of sovereign immunity and unconstitutional delegation of government powers. In 1943, a New York Supreme Court judge held:
To tolerate or recognize any combination of civil service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded. Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen. To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.
The very nature of many public services — such as policing the streets and putting out fires — gives government a monopoly or near monopoly; striking public employees could therefore hold the public hostage. As long-time New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin wrote in 1968: “The community cannot tolerate the notion that it is defenseless at the hands of organized workers to whom it has entrusted responsibility for essential services.”
What changed, of course, was that the relationship between public sector unions and the Democratic Party became increasingly close. Led by people like former New York Mayor Robert Wagner, these unions were increasingly given more power while they, not so coincidentally, became powerful forces to advance Democratic candidates:
Since the public sector unions were granted those rights beginning in the 1960’s they have achieved the virtual ownership, together with the private sector unions, of the Democratic Party. In the 2010 election cycle, per the Center for Responsive Politics, AFSCME donated 99.5% of contributions to Democrats; The NEA donated 96% and the AFT, 99.7%.
These dues were funneled to Democratic candidates who promised to raise workers salaries and hire more public sector workers-even though statistics show that total compensation for federal and state workers is nearly 50% higher than for private sector employees.
The effect of this incestuous relationship between the public sector unions and the people they’re negotiating with is easy to see. People who work for the government, and earn their living off the taxpayers dime, have direct access during negotiations to the very people they help to put in office and can hold over their heads the promise of campaign contributions, or the threat that those contributions will be cutoff and given to another candidate. The incentives for the politicians are clear; give in to the union demands and reap the benefits of union contribution and essentially free union “volunteer” labor at election time, or at any time that it might be convenient to sage a protest. The one party that doesn’t have any representation during this process is the taxpayer, and their concerns are largely pushed to the side.
The results are easy to see. Runaway compensation for government workers, benefit packages that are far more generous than anything that exists in the private sector, higher taxes, and higher deficits. The cycle becomes complete when the taxes go from the taxpayers, to the government, to the paychecks of union members, to union dues, to more campaign contributions for pro-union politicians. Or, at least it continues until the system reaches a breaking point, which is where so many parts of the country are right now. New Jersey, New York, California. Wisconsin. They’re all dealing with the effects of bloated public sector union contracts that threaten to bankrupt the state, and people are finally waking up to the absurdity that we’ve allowed to be created here. Chris Christie and Scott Walker are getting attention because they’re the first politicians in a long time to stand up to these unions and say “no.” Even New York’s new Democratic Governor is getting the message.
The party is over guys, and your days of feeding off the government trough are coming to an end.