Commentary Magazine


Public-Employee Unions vs. the Public

Public-employee unions are quickly becoming a major and, indeed, imminent threat to American democracy, but one that will be very difficult to correct.

It used to be that few government employees were unionized, as few governments allowed it. But in 1958, Mayor Robert F. Wagner of New York City signed an executive order allowing city workers to organize. The son of the author of the Wagner Act, still the basic federal labor-law in the United States, believed in unions. But he also believed in re-election and calculated that he would receive a lot of votes from New York City’s vast bureaucracy and teachers if he promised to let them organize. He did indeed. Other politicians made the same calculation, and other state and municipal governments followed suit. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy allowed federal workers to organize.

While union membership has been declining for more than 50 years in the private sector as the economy moved away from manufacturing and into services and high-tech industry, union membership among government employees has soared.

There are two big problems with this. The first is that both management and labor are deciding not how to divide the profits that they create by their mutual efforts, as in a corporate labor negotiation, but how much of someone else’s money (yours, to be precise) should be paid to workers. The tendency to cut a favorable deal rather than endure a protracted and difficult negotiation and possibly a disruptive strike (most public employees are barred from striking, but the laws are often enforced by a slap on the wrist) is strong. Because big salary increases might result in unfavorable publicity, it has often been the benefits that have been increased, such as allowing workers to retire with a full pension after 20 years and giving them gold-plated health insurance. (Why do you think labor unions are so opposed to taxing Cadillac health plans?) Today federal workers earn twice as much on average as their private-sector counterparts.

But as Fred Siegel and Dan DiSalvo point out in the Weekly Standard, there’s an even bigger problem than politicians being generous with other people’s money. While a union can call a strike against a company it feels has not been generous enough, it can’t fire the CEO and the company treasurer. But they can, and have, worked hard to fire politicians who don’t knuckle under, using their immense financial and manpower resources to elect others they thought would do their bidding. As a result, many politicians forget whose interests they are paid to uphold. Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, addressing a rally of 10,000 public workers in Trenton in 2006, the year after he was elected governor, promised them that “we will fight for a fair contract.” Of course, it was Corzine’s own administration that was negotiating with the workers.

The stronger the public-employee unions, the worse shape governments tend to be in — just ask Jon Corzine’s constituents. Democrats, the beneficiaries of $400 million in union largesse in the last election cycle, aren’t about to do anything, so it is up to Republicans to work to rein in a situation that is rapidly running out of control.