Tinkering With The Mechanics Of Death (Of Public Sector Unions)

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?


28 thoughts on “Tinkering With The Mechanics Of Death (Of Public Sector Unions)

    1. William Doriss

      If there were, each and every judge in the Friedrichs case would have to recuse himself. Ha. The case would never get resolved, and ergo, the unions win the day. Smarty-pants!

      1. Peter Orlowicz

        I don’t think there’s a union for Article III judges, mostly because I’m not at all sure who the “employer” would be that they would bargain with. To the extent the judges have to interact with Congress, there is the Judicial Conference of the United States, but that’s not the same thing as a union. There is a union for administrative law judges who work for executive branch agencies, however.

        As for judges recusing themselves, there have been cases where judges were involved as a class (suits involving judicial pay, etc). In those instances, there is a common law “rule of necessity” that requires judges to render a decision in a case, even if they would otherwise be disqualified, if that is the only way a decision can be rendered. See, e.g., United States v. Will, 449 U.S. 200 (1980), and Jorgensen v. Blagojevich, 811 N.E.2d 652 (Illinois Supreme Court 2004).

    2. Brian

      No, but at the state level, at least some administrative law judges are under union contracts. I know this is the case for Department of Children and Family Services ALJs in Illinois, because I applied for that position and was informed that the union rules required internal promotion candidates to be considered first. So if you are accused of child neglect in Illinois, your initial fact finder will probably be an incompetent former caseworker whose main qualifications for the job were “spent sufficient time working at DCFS.”

  1. William Doriss

    In support of this argument are the charts showing the growing AFSCME membership in the post WWII
    era and the corresponding declining membership in private sector membership. They crossed at one critical point and continue going in opposite directions as we speak. This is not the Amerikan way. Pres. RayGun tried to do something about it when he fired the striking air traffic controllers 35 years ago, the signature act of his first term. Ultimately, he and the RepubliCants were unable to stop the onslaught of public sector entitlement. He gets credit for noticing these creeping public sector cancers.

    Full Disclosure: We are a former member of Carpenter’s Local 210, CT, and the Westchester Co., N.Y., District Council of Carpenters. (Private sector.) We dropped out when it became impossible to make a living, in spite of our outstanding [at the time] wages. We became de facto “part-timers”, as contractor-builders went increasingly non-union; increasingly immigrant-labor dependent as well. Department stores and retail box stores have taken up the practice and now
    increasingly use employees on a “just-in-time” basis, i.e., only when they need them. Low wage employees must make themselves available “on call”. If not, they don’t get the job: No job security whatsoever. NPR had an excellent segment yesterday on these private sector practices and families living in poverty, millions of them under two dollars a day. Shockingly. Contrast this with public sector cradle-to-grave security. We urge everyone to listen to the podcast, and read the book.

    The AFSCME movement has become insidious to the health and welfare of the tax-paying public. Some of them seem hellbent on grabbing as much as they can while simultaneously contributing as little as possible. (Clocking in and clocking out.) And don’t forget rampant disability claims! When was the last time anyone saw a cop walking the beat? Something needs to be done, and perhaps this Friedrichs case will put the nail in the coffin of out-of-control public sector expectations. Finally, all debts get paid; either by the borrower or the lender.
    All the best,

    1. SHG Post author

      A surprisingly cogent comment, Bill. If only you could control the impulse to devolve into suspect wordplay, there would be nothing to distract people from appreciating its insight.

  2. EH

    People often complain that “public servants already take a pretty hefty pay cut just for the opportunity to serve their communities.”

    Oddly enough, they are nonetheless incredibly competitive positions to get because there are some magic incentives which aren’t reflected in yearly pay. Like, say, “summers and school vacations off” or “pensions” or “never getting fired even if you’re a royal fuckup, much less if you’re merely less-than-ideal.” Dig into a town budget sometime and those costs become apparent.

    The nice thing about getting rid of public sector unions would be a presumable decrease in soft costs. Unions try get benefits which aren’t readily apparent because they are more palatable to the public even though they still cost the same as wages. If we could be more up front about what union members are actually paid, our bargaining power would go up.

  3. John Barleycorn

    2011? My, my…, how time flies. Well at least I think I finally figured out what your peculiar “reply button” function fetish is all about.

    You wouldn’t be bullshiting us about dating Wobbly Women, without your parents permission even, now would you? That must have been fun. I must say, I am a little bit jealous even.

    P.S. Paul Krugman? You and that newspaper you read everyday make him sound like a colonel or something. You do know that he ‘ain’t even a brigadier general and he sure as heck has probably never been in the same bed with a true Wobbly, even if he did win that prize thingy, right?

    P.S.S Oh yeah…. BTW, gas is cheap again. I am a bit bummed out that you are such a tight wad that you couldn’t even spring for an extra bucket or two to throw on top of this whole public sector union hullabaloo and roast a few “next civil war” marshmallows quips on top. Sometimes I think you might be losing your innate sense of desire for all the fun that is yet to come and is-a-brewing. You can be such a pessimist about leaping fancies of consciousness. I am starting to think you have been having wired dreams about judges on unicorns making the rules and interviewing court jesters again. Pull yourself together man!

  4. Jim Ryan

    Yes, Absolutely, I Agree! Particularly in NYC where ALL municipal unions were purposely not under any contract as a result of the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, there were NO incentives for the contractors hired to contain or constrain costs so CityTime ballooned from a $63 million project to a $700 million dollar project. Hourly Consultants were paid up to $800 per hour under Bloomberg for the SuperStorm Sandy recovery efforts and not a single NAIL was hammered for over a year. Some of us are still not back into our homes or compensated for our losses.

    Meanwhile we see “Management” get increasing compensation and Performance based bonuses which are not passed on to the rank and file. The price of Tuition has gone up so those of us paying for Childrens’ College education are hit with a double whammy, increased costs and no raises.

    And finally NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has graciously granted $240 million to CUNY to fund raises. Oh yeah he’s funding that with a $535 million dollar cut to CUNY budgets which are already facing a deficit of $51 million for the fiscal year ending in June.
    Oh and the AFSCME/DC37 Contracts we’re working under expired in 2009.

    1. SHG Post author

      Cool story, but unless the world revolves exclusively around you (does it?), then your anecdotal tale of woe is the typical appeal to emotion offered to draw sad tears. So everybody can just add their personal sad tale to the mix, we can add them up at the end and see who wins Queen for a Day. And while your union was doing such a great job of representing you, did you pay union dues or agency fees? Ask for a refund, work harder and maybe you can get a merit raise if you’re worth it.

      1. Jim Ryan

        How many of me does it take to screw in a light bulb?
        Answer: One, I just place it in the socket and the whole UNIVERSE (not just a mere world) revolves around me.

        No one has gotten a “merit” raise in over 10 years. While they exist in theory, they are less common than unicorns.

        1. SHG Post author

          Of course no one has gotten a merit raise. You can’t. You’re represented by a union, and it would be an unfair labor practice for management to make an agreement with any individual. Without the Taylor Law and a union, you could get a merit raise. Without it, you’re screwed. You’re at the mercy of the union too.

  5. Weebs

    The simple answer is for public sector unions to separate their usual union functions from their political lobbying arm. The NRA has done this very successfully with the NRA-ILA lobbying group.

    Of course, if they did this they would most likely not have billions to shower on politicians which would defeat their purpose.

    So that won’t happen.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not that simple for unions. When they negotiate for seniority over merit, or for the LEOBR, for example, these are political positions as well.

  6. Patrick Maupin

    I certainly hope Abood is overturned — I was only in high school when it was decided, but I actually remember it quite clearly — my grandmother was a teacher, and I read about it in her union magazine which declared a huge victory with the slogan “representation without taxation is unfair!”

    I just shook my head at how crazy all those damn Yankees were, and how bad the history lessons must be up there if that’s the slogan they attributed to the founding fathers, and swore I’d never move to a non-right-to-work state.

  7. Jeff Davidson

    I am a member of IAAF Local 2068. I have no objection to ever increasing salaries and benefits if I can get them, but our union does not negotiate salaries or benefits. For my money the chief benefit the union provides is legal counsel and guidance through the disciplinary process and the grievance process, thus putting me on somewhat more equal footing with my employers, who have a battery of attorneys at hand and money to hire more outside attorneys if they wish. In my local at least, all political activities go through the FirePAC, which is a separate fund to which I make a separate contribution.

    1. SHG Post author

      Odd that your local doesn’t negotiate salary and benefits, as that’s what the IAFF does for its members elsewhere. If the union is the representative of the collective bargaining unit, then there would be no one else who can, and it’s not a volley department.

      1. Jeff Davidson

        IANAL, but as I understand it Virginia as a state prohibits recognition of public safety unions by it’s state, county, and municipal governments.

    2. Peter Orlowicz

      Even if Friedrichs is decided in favor of the teacher plaintiff, to co-opt a phrase, if you like your union, you can keep your union. As Scott pointed out, as long as unions provide value that members find it worth paying dues for, the unions will continue to be successful. What Friedrichs is all about are the people who don’t agree with the union’s positions, who don’t want the services that the union’s selling, and are being forced to pay for them anyway.

      1. Scott

        The corollary, of course, would be that non-union members should not enjoy the benefits procured by the union for its members. Which I suppose could eliminate the free-rider problem that agency fees are supposed to mitigate, assuming such a dual-tier system could be practically administered.

        1. SHG Post author

          It would be unlawful, as the union is the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit, so that employees who wanted someone else to bargain on their behalf would be precluded from doing so. That’s why non-union members get the same benefits as union members. You can’t piecemeal bits of this problem without having a full understanding of all the implications of unionism. And you can’t learn everything there is to know about the law and theory of unionism in a blog comment.

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