The machine: Public Sector Unions

Public sector unions have long been adversaries of the Republicans. Calvin Coolidge came to prominence after breaking the Boston Police Strike. One of Ronald Reagan’s early Presidential successes was his handling of the PATCO strike. And Scott Walker fought valiantly to limit the excessive collective bargaining privileges of government workers. Historically, even some Democrats have opposed public sector unions. FDR notably remarked, “Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than 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.”

Overall, 28% of federal employees are union members, compared to about 32% of state employees, and 43% of local employees. Non-union members who still pay dues increase each percent by an average of five points. I don’t need to explain how unfair it is for the government to lobby the government for more of our money, while using our money to do the lobbying.

While the terms of public sector collective bargaining vary from state to state, most states permit or require it, at least for some workers. On our list of Republican states, Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all have legal statutes requiring local governments to recognize and bargain with public employee unions. While the degree of bargaining varies (Republicans in Wisconsin for instance reduced bargaining terms to pay increases only,) these statutes benefit public sector unions by requiring local governments to do business with them. If unable to completely prohibit these unions, a good way to make the bargaining process fairer would be to define and limit some of the more vague terms found within these statutes. Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Tennessee in their statutes require localities to bargain over “terms and conditions.” Teachers unions routinely demand changes to policies for dismissal, tenure, assignment, grievance policy, evaluations, and class size, all to maximize the number of total employees that pay union dues. Restricting those terms and conditions that can be bargained over could go a long way towards weakening the unions. In Indiana, Governor Daniels used an executive order to severely limit which “terms and conditions” could be bargained for. In Michigan, Governor Snyder’s Emergency Manager Law allowed for the renegotiation of contracts to limit conditions of employment as well. Similar methods should be used to limit the ability of public employees to collectively bargain for policies that only serve to increase their membership.

Perhaps more threatening, is the allowance of public employees to strike free from consequence.  Alaska, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming all allow public employee organizations to strike. This practice should be curtailed as well. Prohibiting strikes removes much of the bargaining leverage government workers use to game the system. Public sector unions also enjoy a steady, reliable revenue stream, as union dues are deducted directly from member’s paychecks, often by the government, which reduces the union’s administrative costs. Limitations on automatic payroll deductions would counter this, and require the unions to do their own fundraising.

An additional legislative priority that should be pursued is paycheck protection laws. Laws of this type require public sector unions to get the expressed affirmative permission of each of its members, before that member’s dues can be spent on activities unrelated to collective bargaining.  Only six states have adopted such laws so far, which leaves many states with the capacity to pass future ones. All told, Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin lack paycheck protection. I assume that the lack of these laws in states that are generally considered to be less favorable to unions is that they seem redundant alongside right to work or prohibitions on organizing. Anything that is harmless to us and reduces the political capital of the Democrat machine however should be pursued.

The largest public sector union is the National Education Association; the third largest is the American Federation of Teachers. In 2011, the NEA was responsible for independent expenditures exceeding more than $80,000 just in the Wake County, NC local school board election. And this amount was just a drop in the bucket considering they spent more than $12.5 Million on contributions alone in 2012. While I don’t want this post to devolve into a discussion on education reform, there are various policy changes that could weaken teachers unions, both by weakening the need for them and expanding choice options away from them. Merit pay for instance ties compensation to teacher performance rather than seniority. A recent study by Education Next found that only 3.5% of school districts had a true merit pay system leaving much room for local conservative activists. Additionally, charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers enable more families to attend schools that are freed from some of the labor constraints imposed on normal public schools.

Again, while it would be ideal to eliminate government unions wherever possible, various state supreme court opinions or legislative statutes enshrine the right to join a union as a right, even for government jobs. Even Mississippi and Utah have precedents to this effect. Implementing policies that simply limit or remove the unfair privileges already obtained by government unions then might be a better strategy.

My next diary will focus on trial lawyers.