Another issue for Republicans: The problem with public sector unions

Continuing with our theme of issues the Republican Party fails to capitalize on, the Heartland Institute’s September Budget & Tax News includes an article titled, “Researcher Says ‘Raucous Showdown’ with Government Unions Is Ahead.” For the record, let’s say we hope so. A ‘raucous showdown’ is long overdue.

The Democratic Party might love class warfare but they hate the thought of private sector employees finding out how much more public sector employees earn in salary and benefits than they do. Here are a few excerpts from that Budget & Tax News article:

“To guarantee continued delivery of public services at a reasonable cost, local, state, and federal lawmakers will soon be forced to stand up to government employee unions, according to a new study by Lewis M. Andrews, Ph.D., executive director of the Connecticut-based Yankee Institute for Public Policy.

In ‘The Coming Showdown with Public Labor,’ released in June, Andrews suggests politicians ‘privately know’ they will have to allow more competition in public education, rely on ‘cost-conscious insurance companies to manage government-funded health care,’ and provide for ‘a sweeping privatization of many other government services.’ …

Workers Get 50 Percent More

The major roadblock to such savings in the United States is resistance from public employee unions, which have become accustomed to extracting generous benefits from politicians without having to give much in return, Andrews’s study notes. State government workers collect nearly 50 percent more in total compensation than the average private-sector employee.”

Again, let us hope those politicians “privately know” that more competition will be needed. Some of us would settle for evidence that a handful of Republican politicians know this. The policy debate over the many problems with public sector unions has yet to make it into the public debate in any meaningful way despite it having been studied and written about for many years. The following material, in fact, was gathered a while ago and is still timely.

Since labor unions have been a part of the American economic landscape for many decades, it’s a good guess that many people don’t even think about the potential problems inherent in public sector unions. This apprehension towards them is not new, however. In his book “The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education,” Peter Brimelow noted that both AFL-CIO president George Meany and President Franklin Roosevelt “viewed unionization of the public sector as unthinkable. A public sector union would just have too much power.”

Times have changed. Brimelow continued:

“From an economic point of view, all labor unions are engaged in tying to monopolize the supply of labor in their particular industries-in order to increase its price in the form of wages. But a public sector union would be a monopoly on top of a monopoly: Education is a government provided service. (Indeed, public education is in on top of a third monopoly, because compulsory attendance laws mean that parents have to accept this government service whether they like it or not.) So public sector unions were prohibited by law. But this inhibition-like so many others-abruptly vanished in the 1960s.”

According to its own website, the Public Service Research Foundation (PSRF) believes that the issue of public sector unionism is “an important issue for everyone, in that:

“For far too long, public sector employee relations has been regarded as the exclusive concern of public managers and union officials. Disputes over union contracts have been regarded as problems between ‘labor’ and ‘management,’ rather than the important questions of public policy they are. Public concern about public sector union contracts has been best characterized by a ‘what’s it going to cost me’ attitude. This attitude has been felt by elected officials who, far too often, when there wasn’t enough money to satisfy union contract demands, have traded away the right to manage the size, cost and quality of essential public services.

Nowhere has this trend been more evident than in the field of public education. Teacher unions, frequently with the active support of school administrators, have used collective bargaining agreements to seize control of public education.

While this concern is most obvious in public education, it certainly isn’t limited to that field. Unions in police, fire, sanitation – in virtually every area of public service — are increasingly bargaining for the right to run the government.”

The question for the Public Service Research Foundation is “are public sector unionism and collective bargaining in the public interest?”

“One of the most fundamental questions about public sector employer-employee relations in America today is whether unionism and collective bargaining in the public sector are good public policy.

When the first law mandating public sector collective bargaining was enacted in Wisconsin in 1959, policy makers had no empirical evidence on which to base their hopes that it would lead to more harmonious and equitable employee relations. They ignored the warnings of many that unionism and collective bargaining, by their very nature, would give public sector unions disproportionate power. Collective bargaining has somewhat of a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ aspect about it. Without a thorough understanding of all the issues involved, the average person is likely to believe there is nothing wrong with it.”

Any discussion of excessive government spending has to include the serious problems associated with allowing public sector unions. Because there is little oversight, government employee unions operate from an unprecedented position of strength as compared to other, non-governmental unions. It’s time for the Republican Party to begin to address this problem – and the solution is obvious: reversing the four decades-old policies allowing for the unionization of government workers.

©2008 John Francis Biver