23 Feb 2011

Unionized Government Employees

Jonah Goldberg explains how government employees were allowed to unionize and why government employee unions need to be outlawed once again.

Traditional, private sector unions were born out of an often bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. And before unionization and many New Deal-era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Meanwhile, government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to “The Jungle”? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.

Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

The argument for public unionization wasn’t moral, economic or intellectual. It was rankly political.

Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic Party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.

The plan worked. Public union membership skyrocketed and government union support for the party of government skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5% going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Why would local government unions give so much in federal elections? Because government workers have an inherent interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments get. Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government.

And this gets to the real insidiousness of government unions. Wisconsin labor officials fairly note that they’ve acceded to many of their governor’s specific demands — that workers contribute to their pensions and healthcare costs, for example. But they don’t want to lose the right to collective bargaining.

But that is exactly what they need to lose.

Private sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government. The labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when the unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

This is why FDR believed that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” and why even George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, held that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

As it turns out, it’s not impossible; it’s just terribly unwise. It creates a dysfunctional system where for some, growing government becomes its own reward. You can find evidence of this dysfunction everywhere.

My wife and I used to live in a small town at the northeastern end of Fairfield County, Connecticut. When we bought our house, the real estate tax was about $1500 a year. After two decades of residence, we were paying more than $8000 a year.

Our town’s budget consisted of very little beyond school costs, but our school system was a complex and ever-growing empire with a large administration whose costs rose relentlessly, in good times and bad, at a reliable rate of 8-12% per annum.

People used to describe the kind of town we resided in as a bedroom community, referring to the fact that the residential population was comprised predominantly of commuters, who typically had to travel somewhere between three quarters of an hour to two hours to and from work every day. The population of our town arrived at home in the early evening weeknights exhausted and retired early to get up for the next day’s commute.

The political class and vested interests could do anything they liked politically, simply by scheduling the town meeting on a weeknight. To the meeting would come the well-organized representatives of school spending, elected school board members, teachers and administrators, and ambitious parents eager to throw more of other people’s money at their children’s education. They were never opposed by more than a handful of old timers approaching retirement age attempting to hold the fiscal line.

Trying to control spending was an exercise in futility, because if the town actually got up on its hind feet and rejected the budget incorporating the proposed school teachers’ and administrators’ contract, a state law (passed quietly by an obliging democrat-controlled legislature) mandated binding arbitration. The arbitration board was, of course, made up of retired school teachers, democrat political figures, and social activists, so going to arbitration would, at best, amount to a token slice being removed from everything the unions asked for. And that was that.

School budgets and taxes rose inexorably, and the character of our town and its region changed ineradicably. Older residents soon found it impossible to afford to live in retirement in Fairfield County communities like ours. The real estate taxes were just too high. They sold out and moved to cheaper, and usually sunnier, locations. Eventually, we did, too.

One Feedback on "Unionized Government Employees"

Grab Those Glasses Again « The Street Where You Live

[…] Here is a blog post I found which provides some interesting insight that might resonate with you regarding our town in relation to the union and the union’s affect on rising taxes. The author, David Zincavage quotes an article by Jonah Goldberg and shares how his small town was affected by unionized labor. […]


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