A strike in Chicago and New York City; rallies of tens of thousands in Wisconsin; politician walkouts in Indiana; attempts to change the constitution in Michigan — these events and more featured government unions and their leaders at the forefront of the recent battles over public policy.
As a recessed economy dragged down state expenditures, governors and legislatures increasingly looked to trim from the fattest part of government: Public-sector employees. Salaries and pensions that saw government workers being compensated far more generously than their private-sector counterparts were finally beginning to be addressed.
While it would be easy to classify this battle as between those who are “pro-union” or “anti-union,” a distinction should be made between unions in the private-sector versus the public-sector counterpart. Historically and in modern-day practice, these are two very different things.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, private-sector unions are allowed to extract dues and fees from workers if the employer is a unionized workplace. The NLRA, passed in 1935 during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, does not, however, apply to public-sector employees, including state and federal workers, because the thinking was that this would over-politicize government and cause a conflict of interest between unions and politicians.
In a Weekly Standard piece by Fred Siegel, a visiting professor at St. Francis College, and Dan DiSalvo, a professor at City College of New York, titled, “The New Tammany Hall,” this problem is described:
Unlike private sector unions, the sheer number of workers represented is not the linchpin of [the public sector unions] influence. Private sector unions have a natural adversary in the owners of the companies with whom they negotiate. But public sector unions have no such natural counterweight. They are a classic case of “client politics,” where an interest group’s concentrated efforts to secure rewards impose diffused costs on the mass of unorganized taxpayers.
In the 1960s, many states began chipping away at the wall of separation between unions and public workers. It was only in 1959 that Wisconsin became the first state to allow public employees to unionize. A few years later, in 1965, the Michigan Legislature revised the Public Employment Relations Act to establish mandatory collective bargaining and exclusive representation for state and municipal government workers. This has caused the number of public-sector union employees to skyrocket.
Typically, government unions are given the exclusive right to bargain for members in a workforce. If an employee takes a job, they are forced to belong to the union or pay an “agency fee.” This gives local and state unions a lot of power.
A conflict of interest would be as follows: First, government union elects politician by funding their campaign and organizing a massive get-out-the-vote drive; second, politician supports employee pay increases, generous pensions and condition of employment; third, union takes dues (read: taxpayer money) and starts the cycle all over again for selected politician.
In economics, this problem is described in “public choice theory” – the idea that those receiving concentrated benefits (the union) have more of an incentive to spend time and money lobbying than those paying the diffused costs (taxpayers). Eventually, this leads to bloated government as the incentives for public-sector unions and their employees to perform well is eroded.
For example, in Detroit, the city water department was revealed a few months ago to employ a horseshoer – despite having no horses. This was a position with the department decades ago, but is no longer needed. The water department in the city is inefficient (twice the number of employees per gallon as Chicago) and in debt (brings in approximately $700 million per year while owing $6 billion). Despite this waste and fiscal malpractice, the local union head said it is “not possible” to eliminate positions.
Around the country, one of the main issues fought for by teachers’ unions is tenure protection. For most heavily-unionized states, once teachers are in the system for a few years, they are granted tenure which makes it nearly impossible to remove them – no matter what they do. In New York City, this led to “rubber rooms,” where teachers committing criminal acts were put to keep them out of the classroom. In Los Angeles, our nation’s second-largest schools system, the district fired exactly one tenured teacher over a twenty year period. In Michigan, the teachers’ union fought in court for a decade with a district which removed a teacher accused of sexually assaulting six female students. During the investigation, that same teacher was arrested and convicted of murdering his wife with an ax in their front lawn. Despite this, the union fought on – eventually winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay.
The end game for these types of relationships is already happening in our country’s most public union-friendly states: In California, the government was forced to issue IOUs and minimum wage salaries to public officials before a massive tax a few months ago. And in Illinois, where the state jammed through a 67-percent income tax increase and a 69-percent business tax hike to try and confront its spending problem. Both states have some of the highest state tax rates in the nation, and yet both face pension obligations that they cannot ever hope to pay.
These types of political dealings and financing may not be illegal, but it makes for a poor political process when politicians can take money from government employee unions and then vote on legislation that directly improves the financial well-being of these entities. A quid pro quo exists that would not if public-sector unions were restricted from giving money to politicians, or outlawed altogether.
The problem of politicians granting unsustainable government employee salaries, benefits and pensions exists across the country, but the states with the strongest public-sector unions will have the hardest time correcting it. More broadly, as long as these incestuous relationships between government unions and the political class remain in place and unchallenged, the size and scope of government will continue to grow.
Jarrett Skorup is a research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think thank located in Midland, Michigan. Image of union members protesting in Wisconsin courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire