Pawlenty: Public-sector unions illegitimate

Fat pensions.  Big salaries.  Civil-service job protections.  If any group of workers never needed union representation, it’s public sector employees.  Outgoing Governor Tim Pawlenty writes today in the Wall Street Journal that the moral arguments for organizing simply don’t apply to government workers, and unionization ends up putting unelected, unaccountable union bosses in control of public policy:

When Americans think of organized labor, they might think of images like I saw growing up in a blue-collar meatpacking town: hard hats, work boots, tough conditions and gritty jobs. While I didn’t work in the slaughterhouses, I did become a union member when I worked at a grocery store to help put myself through school. I was grateful for the paycheck and proud of the work I did.

The rise of the labor movement in the early 20th century was a triumph for America’s working class. In an era of deep economic anxiety, unions stood up for hard-working but vulnerable families, protecting them from physical and economic exploitation.

Much has changed. The majority of union members today no longer work in construction, manufacturing or “strong back” jobs. They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming “industry” left in our economy. Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000.

The shift from the private sector to the public sector has had dire consequences for states and the federal government:

Public employee unions contribute mightily to the campaigns of liberal politicians ($91 million in the midterm elections alone) who vote to increase government pay and workers. As more government employees join the unions and pay dues, the union bosses pour ever more money and energy into liberal campaigns. The result is that certain states are now approaching default. Decades of overpromising and fiscal malpractice by state and local officials have created unfunded public employee benefit liabilities of more than $3 trillion.

Pawlenty had to stare down Minnesota transit workers in a 44-day strike in 2005, a story he tells in his column.  The union wanted the state to guarantee health benefits for a lifetime after 15 years of service, a ridiculous request that would have cost Minnesotans billions of dollars for workers who weren’t working for the state any longer, let alone the costs for those who do.  It took 44 days for the union to back down, and Pawlenty barely held his office the following year in a national Democratic wave election.

The governor offers a three-plank plan to reform public employees systems that comprises some familiar strategies: bring compensation in line with the private sector, reduce unfunded liabilities by using the same kind of accounting principles government requires from the private sector, and switch from defined-benefit models to defined-contribution models for pensions.  But in order to make those changes, federal and state governments will have to take on the unions.  The SEIU, AFCSME, and the NEA will not stand idly by while these actions take place.  Pawlenty doesn’t explicitly state this, but he challenges conservative reformers to “fight this challenge head on,” and calls the public sector unions the “exploiters” that require confrontation and defeat.

The pension crisis has already exploded in some states, notably California, and the federal government isn’t far behind.  It’s yet another entitlement funded by taxpayers that requires an overhaul, and needs it now.  Speaking of California, this video from October spoofing the film Dangerous Liaisons at Cafe Hayek (via King Banaian) is a particularly apropros finale for this post: