I’ve made no bones about my antipathy toward public sector unionism, a fundamentally flawed concept that never should have been. And I remain a bit miffed at the “D” I was given on the issue by a socialist, if not anarcho-syndicalist, professor in college. It’s not that unions don’t have their virtues or accomplish good things for their members, but that public sector unions are conceptually flawed.
If oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is any indication, the Supreme Court is about to suck the lifeblood out of public sector unions. Steven Greenberg calls this “a ticking time bomb.”
A decision for the plaintiffs in Friedrichs would tell the nation’s 6.2 million unionized state, city, county and school district employees that they can enjoy the benefits offered by their unions without having to pay for them. By some estimates, between 1 million and 2 million workers could be expected to stop paying union fees, at a cost to public-sector unions of $500 million to $1 billion a year.
Since public sector employees can’t be compelled to become union members, they can, per the Supreme Court’s decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Ed., be compelled to pay agency fees, justified as a fee for the service of negotiating a contract on behalf of non-union members of the collective bargaining unit.
What they cannot do, however, is force non-union members to pay for the union’s political activities. The problem is that it’s impossible to separate the two, both because there is no way to differentiate costs attributable to political activity and, as was argued vehemently in Friedrichs, every negotiation by a public sector union is political.
Why? Think how teachers’ unions negotiate over job security to protect incompetent teachers, or how cop unions negotiate for the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. Think about how the money spent on step increases in pay means the taxpayer is compelled to shell out ever-increasing sums for no increase in services.
Public sector unions may have been sufficiently sympathetic at one time to make people forget that the strike/lockout incentives that made unionism work in the private sector didn’t apply to the public sector. What a private company pays its workers comes off its profits. If it pays out too much, it goes bankrupt.
What a public employer pays comes out of taxpayer’s pockets. There’s no profit incentive to limit the bleeding. This not only means non-economic demands are agreed to happily, as politicians will do anything to avoid having to increase taxes to pay union wages, or kick-the-can demands, like pensions to be funded down the road, when some other schmuck is in office and has to pay the bill.
But even if a gun is put to a politician’s head to increase wages, requiring a tax hike to pay for it, the money doesn’t come from the police department’s bottom line, but from your pockets. And the taxpayer’s pockets are bottomless, until they aren’t one day, as happened in Detroit. Then government crashes and burns, the public suffers and begins to realize that government exists to pay off workers, not to serve the public interest. Debts have to get paid. Eventually.
But if public sector unions are wrong, how will workers be able to fight against abusive wages, terms and working conditions? Through basic compensation theory, that if an employer fails to offer adequate compensation, competent people won’t want the job. In the public sector, pressure should come from the people to hire teachers competent to educate our children, cops brave enough not to kill unarmed people. Oh wait. Bad example.
And the flip side is that public sector unions have nowhere to go but up. Every new contract means more money and better terms, as that’s the inherent nature of collective bargaining. In the private sector, the check on this direction is that the business doesn’t have endless funds to throw at workers, so it has to bargain hard, demand give-backs or, if no agreement can be reached, lock its workers out or endure a strike. The private employer loses revenue, and the employees lose income. That’s the price of disagreement.
The same incentives don’t exist in the public sector, so wages keep going up, terms keep getting better, and a group of workers who once claimed to suffer lower wages than the private sector in exchange for greater job security (because public employers never fold up shop and move it to China) now enjoy both great wages and great terms of employment. Because continually getting wage increases means, well, great wages.
But public sector unions grew fat and greedy over time, living large on the appreciative employees who kept making more and more money, enjoying greater job security, enjoying benefits that made private sector employees cry in envy. And they glommed as much for union dues as they could, and sucked the rest out as agency fees, which are invariably the same as union dues, despite Abood. Teachers’ unions spend fortunes supporting political candidates and fighting merit pay increases. Teachers’ union officials need to drive Mercedes Benz’s too, you know, or the other union presidents will laugh at them.
Will an adverse decision in Friedrichs devastate public sector unions? Unless they provide sufficient benefit to be worth their cost, sure. Employees will free-ride off union negotiations, assuming unions can continue to exist if employees decide to stop paying dues and agency fees. And pro-union folks will appeal to our emotions by telling us how they are entitled to “fair” wages and working conditions, “entitled” to earn more. Aren’t we all? Aren’t taxpayers entitled to keep more of their earnings rather than be forced to pay it out in taxes to cover public employee salaries and benefits?
The problem isn’t the unions’ ability to suck agency fees out of non-members that cover its political actions, both direct to candidates and implicit in its negotiating demands. The problem is that public sector unionism should never have been allowed in the first place, but that horse has left the barn.
Just as death penalty opponents will fight over the cocktails used to execute people, opponents of public sector unionism are fighting over how unions keep the flow of money coming in to keep them alive. Employees who don’t want to be forced to “buy” union services, because they feel they can do better based on their own merit or just disagree with union politics, are happy to wave good-bye.
Public employees, who believe with all their heart and soul that they are entitled to ever-increasing salary and benefits on the public dole, will rightfully complain about the free-riders, because it shifts the burden on to union members to carry the cost of unions. And they don’t want to do it, because they want to keep their money just like everyone else, and unions can’t survive without it.
This decision could well be the death penalty for public sector unions. They never should have been born. And the sad tears of public employees at the death of their super-influence on the machinery of politics will give way to the same choice that everyone else has to make. Do you want the job or not?