Special Report

Labor Day Special

In order to form more public unions.

By 9.5.07

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When Congress returns after Labor Day the Democratic majority will return to the business of paying off its campaign debts to organized labor, which spent lavishly to elect Democrats in 2006. That means helping unions and hurting workers.

So far the House has approved a measure to recognize unions without elections and cut funding for the Office of Management Labor Standards, which enforces transparency for unions. The Senate has not been quite as hospitable: the former legislation was blocked by a filibuster, while the latter measure awaits action in committee.

Also on the Senate agenda will be the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007, which passed the House with bipartisan support. Even Republicans don't want to appear to be against "employer-employee cooperation."

Of course, in the wonderland of Capitol Hill titles disguise the true purpose of legislation. So it is in the case of H.R. 980, which would effectively mandate unionization of emergency medical technicians, firefighters, and policemen across America. States and localities which refused to recognize public sector unions would face a federal override, with Washington setting labor rules.

Union representation in the work force has been falling -- down from 24 percent in 1973 to just 12 percent last year. Only seven percent of private sector workers now are unionized. Whatever the value to workers of labor unions in the early years of industrialization, unions are an anachronism today. In almost every industry and every country unions stand athwart efforts to modernize and invigorate economic practices.

Globalization has enlarged the circle of exchange and expanded wealth creation: organized labor has responded by lobbying to exclude foreign products, limit outside investment, and close borders. If many unions had their way, we would still be living in the horse and buggy age.

Of course, efficiency and productivity have only limited relevance to government, so in that sector union membership has jumped to 36 percent. Many public safety departments, too, are unionized, with about half the states agreeing to union "exclusive representation."

The consequences may not always be negative, but there's no evidence that unionization improves local safety. Observes James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation: "The collective bargaining framework pits employers and employees against each other. Sometimes it leads to greater cooperation, but other times it creates conflict and strife."

He points to illegal strikes by unionized teachers and transit workers as examples, adding that "Even unions representing extremely well paid government workers fight continuously for even more."

The reason why public sector unionization so often has deleterious consequences is two-fold. One is that government is a monopoly, so if unions capture control of the local or state authority, they can impose their agendas on the public. Real monopolies are essentially nonexistent in the private sector. If the workers at one company go on strike or win an expensive contract, customers can turn elsewhere. Not so for fire and police protection, for instance.

Moreover, politics amplifies the power of well-organized interest groups. As Public Choice economists have pointed out, concentrated interests have an incentive to spend lavishly to win elections and influence government decisions. The public, for whom the costs are much more diffuse, is far less able to organize in opposition. From which stems the tendency towards lavish public sector contracts.

Thus, it's no surprise that with both House and Senate in Democratic hands organized labor is attempting to get through politics what it cannot win in the marketplace. And to do so at the national level, since citizens across the country continue to say no in state and local elections.

Today only state and local governments are free to set the terms of negotiation with employees. In a free market that liberty should be protected for all private firms as well, but succumbed to the New Deal juggernaut. In contrast, the federal government limited mandates on states, which enjoy special constitutional recognition.

But H.R. 980 would shift oversight of state and local labor relations with public safety employees to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. State and local rules found to be out of compliance with the measure's "core provisions"--namely, monopoly bargaining by unions -- would be supplanted by federal diktat. Uncle Sam would preempt 26 state and untold local laws.

The likely result would be an upsurge in wage expenses with no countervailing benefits. To the contrary, states and localities would pay substantially more to compensate workers as well as to comply with debilitating work rules. Maryland's Department of Fiscal Services warns that adding 12 "bargaining units" under the law would cost $1.3 million to $1.4 million for processing costs alone.

Equally serious is the likely increase in strikes, which have typically increased four-fold after states approved monopoly union bargaining. Although the bill includes a strike ban, such laws rarely work since unions typically demand an amnesty before ordering members to return to work. Former Rep. William Clay, Sr. (D-Mo.), co-sponsor of a previous version of H.R. 980, acknowledged: "Most states now have legislation prohibiting strikes but, in effect, in reality, they have not stopped strikes."

H.R. 980 also would preclude state and local governments from placing critical issues beyond negotiation. Under the proposed legislation, public employers would have to negotiate on every topic other than state "right-to-work" laws and pension benefits.

Yet public safety work raises unique issues. For instance, Michigan and Wisconsin deal with public employee unions, but the former requires merit-based promotions for police officers; the latter applies that principle to most of its workforce. Notes James Sherk: "Unions strongly support seniority systems and insist on them in negotiations, but police officers and other public safety employees ought to earn their raises."

Another pernicious impact of H.R. 980 would be to virtually end the practice of professional firefighters also serving as volunteers. Although professionals typically take the lead in more urbanized areas, they are a minority: only 12 percent of the nation's 30,000 fire departments are made up entirely or primarily of professionals. Many areas continue to rely heavily on volunteers, who make up nearly three-quarters of all firefighters. About half of the latter are professionals who volunteer as well, saving their fellow citizens an estimated $37 billion annually.

Notes Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee: "officers of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) union locals have an extensive track record of exploiting their monopoly power to punish 'two-hatters,' professional firefighters who serve their own local communities as volunteer firefighters when they aren't on the job." Indeed, professionals who volunteer often are subject to union discipline, including firing.

Moreover, when possible, the IAFF negotiates contracts which ban volunteering by professionals, even on their own time. Federalizing local labor relations would assist IAFF in its prohibition efforts.

H.R. 980 would have another pernicious impact, effectively opening the wallets of hundreds of thousands of public employees to union officials for use in political campaigns from city hall to the White House. Public employees are theoretically guaranteed the right to withhold dues devoted to partisan purposes. In practice unions impede workers from exercising this right at every turn. Expanding forced union representation across the nation would create yet another employee piggy bank for organized labor.

Ironically, while federal legislators are considering ordering states and localities to accept monopoly public employee unions, the federal government does not do so. There are no unions for the armed services, CIA, DIA, FBI, Secret Service or related security agencies. Nor are employees of the Transportation Safety Administration unionized, though the Democrats have been pressing to overturn that ban. Most everyone recognizes that there are good reasons to keep security positions free from union politics.

If employees want to join a union, they should be free to do so. But they should not be free to force their union on other workers or employers, especially in sensitive public safety positions. Even more so, the federal government should not decide labor policy for every city, county, and state in America. It is time for Washington to mind its own business.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).