A Further Perspective

Public Sector Unions and Basic Morality

If words having meaning, public employee unions do not.

By 2.23.11

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The spectacle in Wisconsin has many of us rethinking the underlying grounds for public sector unions. Many Americans are thinking in terms of the obvious financial implications. But surely others are looking deeper to question the moral underpinnings of these unions and their place in public service.

Years ago President Franklin Roosevelt called the idea of public sector unions "unthinkable and intolerable." Not long after, AFL-CIO President George Meany declared that it was "impossible to bargain collectively with the government." They were both speaking to the morality of public servants making demands on taxpayers' earnings under the threat of withholding public services -- or as FDR put it, "looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it."

Roget's Thesaurus lists moral as: virtuous, honorable, conscientious, righteous, upright, and good; and unions will no doubt claim those qualities for themselves. But is it righteous for garbage collectors to walk off the job and allow filth to pile up in the streets? Would you call it virtuous for striking policemen to give crime a holiday? Or honorable for firemen to desert their posts? And teachers -- can they be seen as conscientious as they organize against children and abandon their classrooms and their obligations -- as we are seeing in Wisconsin? Or could we call legislators upright when they skip out on their legislative duties? Undoubtedly, all this is what FDR foresaw, and what Pennsylvania union leader Gerald MacIntee meant when he urged his workers to "close down this God-damned state."

We need to remember -- as the Wall Street Journal pointed out -- that "collective bargaining for government workers is not a God-given or constitutional right." True -- and though we take them for granted today, public unions arrived on the federal level by way of executive order only in 1962, and states quickly followed. After five decades, various strikes and walk-outs, $3.32 trillion in state unfunded pension liabilities, and the current state of public education, it is hard to make the case that public sector unions are doing this country much good. And even harder to sustain is the moral case for public sector unions. They have become exactly what FDR feared they would.

Also from Roget's come these words: dishonorable, conscienceless, unconscionable, unscrupulous and questionable. These are words that well describe "the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it." FDR's "unthinkable and intolerable" is taking place in Wisconsin today and who-knows-where tomorrow. For right's sake, it is time to get rid of public unions and return to public service.

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About the Author

Manon McKinnon is a writer living in Falls Church, Virginia.