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The Real Problem with Government Employee Unions

Friday, February 25, 2011

Although collective bargaining by government employee unions may offend one’s sense of justice, what’s truly unacceptable is government labor’s stranglehold over the local, state, and federal governments with which they bargain.

As union-baiting Midwestern governors have become all the rage in fiscal conservative circles lately, the nation’s focus has turned to government employee unions’ right to bargain collectively.

Backers in the punditocracy of reform-oriented governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich have solemnly intoned certain quotations by long-gone liberals like a catechism:

• “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service” (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

• It’s “impossible to bargain collectively with the government” (George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO).

• Government worker strikes are “unthinkable and intolerable” (FDR again).

• “In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress—a right available to every citizen” (the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council in 1959).

And, indeed, modern-day skeptics of the value of government employee unions have worked assiduously—if controversially—to limit these unions’ collective bargaining rights. Walker’s plan in Wisconsin would scrap these unions’ right to bargain en masse for anything other than wages, since previous negotiations over health and retirement benefits have stretched interminably and opened a gaping hole in the state’s budget.

The increasing political power of these unions results directly from their ability to divert members’ mandatory dues into a massive political slush fund.

In nearby Ohio, Kasich’s aiming at the same target. “It’s right for [government employees] to be able to negotiate their own salary,” Kasich told CNN, “but we need to let managers be able to determine things like keeping the pension systems healthy, making sure that that the costs related to health care are consistent with private sector workers.”

Even here in deep-blue California, an intrepid state legislator is introducing a bill designed to prevent government employee unions from bargaining for pension benefits. “I stand with the legislators in the Midwest who are taking brave steps to stand with the citizens,” State Assemblyman Allan Mansoor told the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s very hard to rein things in under the current process. Pensions are out of control. They have to be brought back in line with the private sector.”

But while collective bargaining by government employee unions in general may be offensive to one’s sense of justice and fair play, what’s truly unacceptable is government labor’s stranglehold over the local, state, and federal governments with which they bargain. This grave defect reflects not so much bargaining power but the increasing political power of these unions, which in turn results directly from their ability to divert members’ mandatory dues into a massive political slush fund, which labor invariably uses to support Democrats, who in turn grant them lavish contracts and benefits.

‘Paycheck protection’ legislation has passed in Washington, Michigan, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Alabama.

“Such unions,” George F. Will recently wrote, “are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it always wants to do anyway: grow.” Or, in Jonah Goldberg’s formulation, “put simply, people in the government business support the party of government.” And the party of government supports them right back.

The solution? So-called “paycheck protection” legislation, which requires union members to agree to allow their union to siphon their hard-earned wages into its political account. States like Washington, Michigan, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Alabama have successfully passed such measures, although they have faltered in California, Oregon, and elsewhere.

Paycheck protection, which forms one part of Walker’s hotly-disputed Wisconsin package, saps labor’s political vitality, forcing union bosses to justify to the rank-and-file why their dues should be funneled to the bosses’ pet causes and candidates. This legislation represents an effective way of decoupling labor’s bargaining prowess from its political adventurism, and pursuing it entails winning the messaging war as well.

Dry up the political money, and the unions will have to pursue their gains in an honest, arms-length negotiation.

Dry up the political money, and the unions will have to pursue their gains in an honest, arms-length negotiation. Instead of clamoring to strip labor of its collective bargaining rights, proponents can articulate a positive vision of ensuring workers’ political freedom and unleashing union members’ First Amendment rights.

Here in San Diego County, one local conservative official is espousing exactly such an approach. “I’m in favor of collective bargaining,” says City Councilman Jerry Kern of Oceanside, a coastal city of some 185,000 about 30 miles north of San Diego.

“My real problem,” Kern contends, “is when you have these public employee unions funding candidates to dominate both sides of the bargaining table.” As a remedy, Kern—who escaped unscathed from a December 2009 recall effort by local labor unions—has required, as part of Oceanside’s city charter, that city employees expressly consent each year to permitting their unions to contribute their dues to a political action committee. Kern hopes such measures can proliferate throughout the state, and even the rest of the country.

So while Walker, Kasich, and company are laboring hard to rein in the excesses of the unions on all fronts, paycheck protection offers a targeted, politically palatable mechanism for doing the same.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen and Mark Ellis discussed “Clean Coal: The Fallows Fallacy,” and Rosen wrote “Thwarting ‘Cyber Predicaments,’” “Ripped Off?” and “The Transformers at the Supreme Court?” Michael Barone explains “How Unions Force Taxpayers to Fund Democrats” and Jonah Goldberg says “Public Unions Must Go.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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