Every tax is a pay cut.  Every tax cut is a pay raise.
Citizens for Limited Taxation

Packing a Punch - Public sector unions
are as strong, and harmful, as ever.
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Terry M. Moe Wall Street Journal
It is a mistake to think that America's unions are in decline.  Yes, the AFL-CIO is having its troubles.  And yes, unions in the private sector have been losing ground for decades, with membership dropping from 35% of the private work force in the 1950s to just 8% today.  But for unions in the public sector, the story is totally different.  Union membership among government employees, trivial prior to the 1960s, exploded during the '60s and '70s as collective bargaining laws were passed in most states, and has held rock-steady ever since at 37% of the governmental work force.  The percentages for many state and local employees -- teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers -- are often much higher.  School teachers, for example, are 80% unionized.

Public sector unions, then, are not in decline at all.  Indeed, they are extraordinarily powerful.  They have many millions of members, they are loaded with money for campaigns and lobbying, and they have activists in virtually every political district in the country.  No other interest groups can match their potent combination of money, manpower, and geographic dispersion.  Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He has proposed reforms (of public employee pensions, of teacher tenure) that California's public sector unions fiercely oppose.  And they have responded with onslaughts of negative ads, combined with noisy demonstrations at his public appearances, that have caused his popularity to plummet from stratospheric highs to abysmal lows.

Because the thesis of union decline is so widely accepted -- and so true for private sector unions -- the public sector unions have been flying under the radar.  Their power is rarely talked about as a major phenomenon of American politics.  It is almost never studied by academics.  And there is no serious attempt to assess its impact on the quality and effectiveness of American government.

This needs to change.  On the surface, these unions may come across as a benign presence in our midst.  After all, they represent teachers, nurses, and other government employees who perform services that are valuable, sometimes indispensable, to all of us.  What's good for them would seem to be good for us -- right?  The problem, however, is that this is not even close to being right.  What's good for them is sometimes quite bad for us.

At the heart of this problem is a genuine dilemma of democratic government:  As governments hire employees to perform public services, the employees inevitably have their own distinctive interests.  They have interests in job security and material benefits, in higher levels of public spending and taxing, and in work rules that restrict the prerogatives of management.  They also have interests in preventing governmental reforms that might threaten their jobs.  To the extent public employees have political power, therefore, they will use it to promote their own job-related interests -- which are not the same as, and may easily conflict with, what is good for the public as a whole.

Because of union power, it is no accident that removing low-performing teachers from the classroom is virtually impossible, even though this nation has been trying to improve the public schools for decades.  Nor is it an accident that police officers in San Francisco may retire in their 50s and receive retirement pay equal to 90% of their final salaries for the rest of their lives, when most workers have no employer-provided retirement benefits at all.  Nor is it an accident that many government agencies -- from public schools to city police departments to county hospitals -- are not designed to have the most effective organizations possible, but are straight-jacketed by collective bargaining contracts that impose hundreds of restrictive bureaucratic work rules.

The public sector unions don't get everything they want, of course.  American government is filled with checks and balances that make it hard for even the most powerful groups to get their wish-lists enacted into law.  The flip side, however, is that checks and balances make it relatively easy to block new legislation.  And in an era so desperate for government reform, this allows the public sector unions to be brutally effective at blocking or weakening virtually all reforms that they find threatening to their interests.  This is the real crux of their power: the power to prevent change in the status quo.

The consequences are truly profound, because serious efforts to bring about better government are eviscerated for reasons that have nothing to do with what is best for the American public.  Why has education reform proven so difficult over the last 20 years?  A big reason:  teacher unions have used their power to resist it every step of the way.  Why is it so difficult to root out corruption and mismanagement of state prison systems?  A big reason:  prison guards have their own interests in how these systems are run, and their unions are very powerful.

We are faced with a true democratic dilemma.  When any government hires employees, it gives birth to special interest groups that seek to exercise power over the government itself on behalf of employee interests.  As governments grow over time, moreover, employee unions will get larger, better funded, and potentially more powerful.  The problem is likely to get worse unless something is done about it.

But what to do?  There is no way to eliminate the conflict of interest between government employees and the public at large.  So the solution must focus on weakening the power of public sector unions.  A Catch-22 quickly emerges here, because the unions will use all their existing power to defeat any attempts to take it away.  Yet for reformers there is no alternative but to try -- by pursuing legislation that prohibits collective bargaining by government workers, for example, and pressuring for "paycheck protection" laws that require unions to get their members' permission before spending dues money on politics.

Success will not come easily, if at all.  But for those who believe that democracy should represent the public interest, the fight is a good and noble one.  It needs to be fought.

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