My father was a sixth-grade teacher active in his teacher union’s leadership. He instilled in me the value of unions. They helped our nation lead and prosper. Unions got laws passed limiting child labor, ensuring safe working conditions and compensating workers with a defined workweek and overtime pay.
The strong, positive legacy of unions, runs counter to news the Supreme Court will hear a case next term that “could wipe out public-sector unions,” according to a recent report in Slate. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the dissolution of public sector unions would be such a bad thing. For all the good they have done, unions’ immense political and fundraising power is corrupting politicians who simply do their bidding without regard to national interest or financial consequences.
Here are some examples that should give pause about the power of public-sector unions.
1. Federal employees unions fought and successfully resisted government leadership efforts to thwart or mitigate cyberattacks. Those in government responsible for our cybersecurity sought to require cybersecurity measures common in the corporate world. After a security breach in 2011 stemming from federal employees accessing personal email accounts on government-owned computers, the government sought to impose countervailing measures by curtailing that access.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) promptly filed a grievance with a federal arbitrator, claiming that any change in access to private email must first be collectively bargained with the union. The arbitrator sided with the AFGE, as did the Democratic majority on the Federal Labor Relations Authority in July 2014, after a lengthy appeals process. In his dissent, the Republican member of the FLRA, Patrick Pizzella, noted that the decision rendered quick cybersecurity action impossible if agencies must collectively bargain it.
2. The bankruptcies of Detroit and Stockton, California, and the fiscal challenges faced by states such as New Jersey and Illinois, along with hundreds of other American cities, are directly linked to overly generous “defined benefit” pensions and other benefits provided to retired government employees. These pensions are union-induced promises made by unwitting or corrupt politicians to give retired government workers fixed monthly payments.
Nationwide, pension funds for state and municipal employees are short at least $1.5 trillion, according to a recent report in the Washington Examiner, and that shortfall could be as high as $4 trillion if investment returns fail to deliver sufficiently. Pensions for California teachers are expected to triple by 2020, to $3.7 billion per year. By 2018, New Jersey will pay about $4 billion per year into pensions.
Many of the pension problems faced by cities and states can be traced back to an unseemly arrangement in which the public-sector unions “negotiate” gold-plated pensions with the very same politicians that they helped elect. (Conflict of interest, anyone?) The taxpayer seldom has a seat at the bargaining table, which is usually found behind closed doors.
3. Taxpayers pay for government employees to run unions. According to a 2013 report in Labor Watch, which was reviewed by the National Center for Policy Analysis, “The practice, known as ‘official time’ at the federal level and ‘release time’ at the state level, pays government employees to perform union activities unrelated to their government responsibilities. The result costs taxpayers substantial sums of money and needs to be reformed…. The practice has cost the federal government an estimated $1 billion since 1998, though haphazard recordkeeping and a lack of transparency make it impossible to know the true cost of union official time.”
4. According to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, public-sector union bosses spent well over $500 million supporting their handpicked political candidates in 2013 and 2014 alone. (And, incredibly, that was just the public-sector unions.)
Those excesses might yet become the source of their own undoing. The Supreme Court announced on June 26 that it had accepted for hearing in its next term a case that could spell the end of public-sector unions.
Ten California teachers along with a Christian educators association are suing to stop those unions from requiring them to pay fees associated with nonpolitical union representation, such as collective bargaining. The plaintiffs assert that the mandatory union dues constitute compelled political speech in violation of the First Amendment.
“Stripped of the ability to collect mandatory fees, many public-sector unions will lose much of their bargaining power,” Slate wrote. “Some will likely collapse.”
Despite it all, public-sector unions are not all bad. We need police and firemen’s unions to ensure proper training and fair compensation for those injured protecting us, and to safeguard these public servants from politicians second-guessing them when they are making front-line split-second decisions while doing their jobs.
But public-sector unions are so powerful they now are hurting the public they are paid to serve. The American public may have had enough.
Consider Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s leadership position as a Republican presidential contender, which rests largely in his courageous and unprecedented willingness to stand up to the unions. Walker led the charge to change the state’s laws so that government employees were no longer required to join the union and so that government can no longer take union dues from government-employee paychecks. Wisconsin public sector union membership has declined by two-thirds. The sudden drop in Wisconsin government-employee union membership, and Walker’s strong victory in both a recall election in June 2012 and re-election in November 2014, are testaments to the limits of Wisconsin’s tolerance for union excess.
The frustration with unions has even spilled over to the historically union-friendly state of Michigan. There, the Michigan Legislature recently shifted Michigan into the right-to-work column. This means workers in Michigan can be no longer forced to join a union.
My father passed away several years ago. He was a World War II veteran and part of the greatest generation, which did everything for those who followed. I’m not sure, but I’d like to think he would agree that unions have gone too far, and are now hurting, rather than helping, our nation.