Time to abolish public employee unions?

posted at 2:10 pm on February 23, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

How did Wisconsin and so many other states get to the point of being held hostage to public-sector unions?  Jonah Goldberg gives an instructional tour of the history of the labor-government relationship, which only goes back for most of the country to 1962.  President John Kennedy lifted the ban on public-sector unions at the federal level in that year, but not because civil-service employees faced poor working conditions or uncertain status.  Kennedy liked how the labor movement could feed his party’s needs for support and funding through unionization, Goldberg argues, which put us on an inexorable path to bankruptcy:

Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil-service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

The argument for public unionization wasn’t moral, economic, or intellectual. It was rankly political.

Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.

The plan worked perfectly — too perfectly. Public-union membership skyrocketed, and government-union support for the party of government skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees — gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Why would local government unions give so much in federal elections? Because government workers have an inherent interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments get. Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government. Which is why, as the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga has been chronicling for years, public unions are the country’s foremost advocates for increased taxes at all levels of government.

The problem goes beyond the financial footing of governments, although we have begun to finally appreciate just how damaging that has been.  Thanks to the political clout of public-employee unions (PEUs), the states and the federal government have acted as bill collectors from their own employees to feed union coffers through closed-shop rules.  That power has allowed unions to get outrageous pension benefits with little or no contribution from their members, as we have seen in Wisconsin, California, and many of the rest of the states burdened with defined-benefit pension plans.

The unions act, in effect, as a workaround to state legislatures on budgeting and bureaucratic management.  This process has become entirely transparent in Wisconsin, where Senate Democrats insist that Governor Scott Walker has to negotiate budget proposals not with them but with union leaders — effectively giving the unions a veto power on the business of the legislature.  Small wonder President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned about allowing government workers to unionize, saying “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

Walker’s proposal in Wisconsin approaches this key problem in a moderate manner.  It does not ban PEUs, as the unions claim, or even collective bargaining.  It does, however, limit the collective bargaining to wages only, and it also takes the state out of the business of collecting union dues.  Walker’s bill would end the requirement of state workers to join the unions at all, making the public sector in Wisconsin (but not the private sector) a “right to work arena,” which it should have been all along.  That’s a reasonable intermediate step to abolishing PEUs, and should address the imbalance in control of public policy.

What do you think?  Take the poll:


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Comment pages: 1 2

We already have given states the right to decide on their own. That shouldn’t be over-ridden on a federal level. This is a state’s right to self-governance.

AnninCA on February 23, 2011 at 2:13 PM

For which right the states are no doubt eternally grateful–to you and the other Founding Fathers. But for a related issue, note where huge chunks of federal stimulus cash wound up. The PEU-government-Democrat party incest is seamless, and pays no respect to the separation of powers.

Barnestormer on February 23, 2011 at 4:01 PM

I’m not sure the Federal Gov. can bar PEUs at the State level and lower, at least not without modifying the Wagner Act. At the Federal level, what JFK did with an executive order can be undone with an executive order.

Every state should bar PEUs. I think they should all implement right-to-work laws, too, but that’s a separate issue.

LarryD on February 23, 2011 at 4:05 PM

I’m not sure the Federal Gov. can bar PEUs at the State level and lower, at least not without modifying the Wagner Act. At the Federal level, what JFK did with an executive order can be undone with an executive order.

LarryD on February 23, 2011 at 4:05 PM

I don’t believe the Wagner Act is germane. It does not now extend to employees of government at any level, federal, state or local.

Barnestormer on February 23, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Sorry if this has already been said, but this is a great campaign issue as it was originally allowed only by Executive Order. Any president has the power to revoke a previous president’s executive order with his signature. Happens every time we get a new president. Of course, Obama won’t revoke JFK’s order, but the next one could. Debate issue for 2012.

txmomof6 on February 23, 2011 at 4:35 PM

They need to be limited and barred from political activity.

Dr. ZhivBlago on February 23, 2011 at 4:37 PM

Time to abolish public employee unions?

Been time.

warbaby on February 23, 2011 at 4:57 PM

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.

Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

– FDR to Mr. Luther C. Steward,
President, National Federation of Federal Employees

TheBigOldDog on February 23, 2011 at 5:00 PM

PUE’s and Party of Big Government. Conflict of Interest anyone?

chickasaw42 on February 23, 2011 at 5:15 PM

The real “fly in the ointment” is not with collective bargaining or any notions like that …

The real problem is the lack of real “business model” balance on the side of government. Federal and State employee unions really never have to strike to get what they want – because their employer doesn’t make a product that needs to make a profit. Theres no “stimuli” for government to drive hard bargains with unions because the money to satiate those unions all comes from taxpayers. It’s much easier to raise taxes on taxpayers to pay off unions than it is to utter the word “NO!” to a union boss.

HondaV65 on February 23, 2011 at 5:19 PM

Sorry if this has already been said, but this is a great campaign issue as it was originally allowed only by Executive Order. Any president has the power to revoke a previous president’s executive order with his signature. Happens every time we get a new president. Of course, Obama won’t revoke JFK’s order, but the next one could. Debate issue for 2012.

txmomof6 on February 23, 2011 at 4:35 PM

I love this idea!!

Tim Zank on February 23, 2011 at 5:23 PM

When you allow “workers” to elect their own “bosses”, what else could you possibly expect? This is the textbook definition of political corruption.

bannedbyhuffpo on February 23, 2011 at 5:48 PM

JFK gave 10 cents of tax cuts and charged us 50 cents for it.
That whole family should be in jail.

lilium on February 23, 2011 at 5:50 PM

Walker’s approach is correct.

There are situations in which a public employee union bargaining for wages only can be helpful. Once the legislature sets the total of compensation for all employees, I see no reason why the executive cannot then bargain with an organization of employees on how that total will be distributed. Wage levels in government are often not transparent, and you might be surprised at how much discretion a hiring agency has as to wage levels. This can lead to huge disparities in wages for people doing the same job; it can lead to arbitrary and capricious granting of reaises and bonuses, etc. Even where there are statutes and rules that govern this sort of thing, if a government agency chooses to ignore them, the workers may suffer and they may need to organize to force the government to honor its own laws and regulations.

We all have a vested interest in making sure all of our governments have good, well-trained employees who want to be where they are and work hard, and are compensated fairly.

What should be prohibited are:

1) Any and all political campaign contributions or independent campaign expenditures by PEUs;

2) Closed PEU shops at any level of government;

3) Governments collecting and disbursing PEU dues; and

4) Collective bargaining for pensions and health benefits.

rockmom on February 23, 2011 at 6:02 PM

IF JFK lifted the ban on these unions by executive order then why can’t the next Republican President reverse that decision?

Jay Mac on February 23, 2011 at 6:31 PM

Over at NRO someone described the public unions as for too long being on the “high-speed gravy train” .

Amen, bro! Time to invalidate their tickets!!

fulldroolcup on February 23, 2011 at 7:17 PM

If it was illegal for the feds to bail out a bankrupt state, then by all means, let them do what they want. So long as people in Indiana are financially on the hook for the sins of Illinois…it becomes a gray area. I’d prefer the ban on state bailouts.

galenrox on February 23, 2011 at 7:39 PM

The reason to ban them all is you can’t negotiate with them, no negotiator has a vested interest in holding cost to reality.My mother had more control over the cookie jar than taxpayers have over contracts.

tim c on February 23, 2011 at 7:55 PM

YES it’s time to abolish public sector unions – and private sector unions, too. Aren’t there plenty of laws that protect employees from transgressions on the part of the companies (and companies’ employees)? Why should union employees feel entitled to something more than the rest of us? Especially when we have to pay for it?

disa on February 23, 2011 at 8:42 PM

I missed the part where people are FORCED to work for anyone…

shorebird on February 24, 2011 at 1:31 AM

But without the public unions, won’t we go back to the government sweatshops? The ones who were forced to live in squalid housing?

And what about all those government employees who died while working in unsafe working conditions? Think of the children!

Squiggy on February 24, 2011 at 6:28 AM

FDR said Public Unions shouldn’t be allowed. Conflict of interest which is so prevalent today. Unions elect politicians who in turn make the unions rich, get them members who in turn donate to politicians to elect them and politicians they elect make them even richer and the taxpayer who is NOT a Public worker foots the stinkin’ bill just as we are doing today. The beat goes on……….

Herb on February 24, 2011 at 11:53 AM

Comment pages: 1 2