Out of Control Policy Blog

Public sector unions are as strong, and harmful, as ever.

In a similar vein to the previous post:

The Wall Street Journal
August 25, 2005

Packing a Punch

Public sector unions are as strong, and harmful, as ever.

By TERRY M. MOE

It is a mistake to think that America's unions are in decline. Yes,
the AFL-CIO is having its troubles. And yes, unions in the private
sector have been losing ground for decades, with membership dropping
from 35% of the private work force in the 1950s to just 8% today. But
for unions in the public sector, the story is totally different. Union
membership among government employees, trivial prior to the 1960s,
exploded during the '60s and '70s as collective bargaining laws were
passed in most states, and has held rock-steady ever since at 37% of
the governmental work force. The percentages for many state and local
employees -- teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers -- are
often much higher. School teachers, for example, are 80% unionized.

Public sector unions, then, are not in decline at all. Indeed, they
are extraordinarily powerful. They have many millions of members, they
are loaded with money for campaigns and lobbying, and they have
activists in virtually every political district in the country. No
other interest groups can match their potent combination of money,
manpower, and geographic dispersion. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has
proposed reforms (of public employee pensions, of teacher tenure) that
California's public sector unions fiercely oppose. And they have
responded with onslaughts of negative ads, combined with noisy
demonstrations at his public appearances, that have caused his
popularity to plummet from stratospheric highs to abysmal lows.

Because the thesis of union decline is so widely accepted -- and so
true for private sector unions -- the public sector unions have been
flying under the radar. Their power is rarely talked about as a major
phenomenon of American politics. It is almost never studied by
academics. And there is no serious attempt to assess its impact on the
quality and effectiveness of American government.

This needs to change. On the surface, these unions may come across as
a benign presence in our midst. After all, they represent teachers,
nurses, and other government employees who perform services that are
valuable, sometimes indispensable, to all of us. What's good for them
would seem to be good for us -- right? The problem, however, is that
this is not even close to being right. What's good for them is
sometimes quite bad for us.

At the heart of this problem is a genuine dilemma of democratic
government: As governments hire employees to perform public services,
the employees inevitably have their own distinctive interests. They
have interests in job security and material benefits, in higher levels
of public spending and taxing, and in work rules that restrict the
prerogatives of management. They also have interests in preventing
governmental reforms that might threaten their jobs. To the extent
public employees have political power, therefore, they will use it to
promote their own job-related interests -- which are not the same as,
and may easily conflict with, what is good for the public as a whole.

Because of union power, it is no accident that removing low-performing
teachers from the classroom is virtually impossible, even though this
nation has been trying to improve the public schools for decades. Nor
is it an accident that police officers in San Francisco may retire in
their 50s and receive retirement pay equal to 90% of their final
salaries for the rest of their lives, when most workers have no
employer-provided retirement benefits at all. Nor is it an accident
that many government agencies -- from public schools to city police
departments to county hospitals -- are not designed to have the most
effective organizations possible, but are straight-jacketed by
collective bargaining contracts that impose hundreds of restrictive
bureaucratic work rules.

The public sector unions don't get everything they want, of course.
American government is filled with checks and balances that make it
hard for even the most powerful groups to get their wish-lists enacted
into law. The flip side, however, is that checks and balances make it
relatively easy to block new legislation. And in an era so desperate
for government reform, this allows the public sector unions to be
brutally effective at blocking or weakening virtually all reforms that
they find threatening to their interests. This is the real crux of
their power: the power to prevent change in the status quo.

The consequences are truly profound, because serious efforts to bring
about better government are eviscerated for reasons that have nothing
to do with what is best for the American public. Why has education
reform proven so difficult over the last 20 years? A big reason:
teacher unions have used their power to resist it every step of the
way. Why is it so difficult to root out corruption and mismanagement
of state prison systems? A big reason: prison guards have their own
interests in how these systems are run, and their unions are very
powerful.

We are faced with a true democratic dilemma. When any government hires
employees, it gives birth to special interest groups that seek to
exercise power over the government itself on behalf of employee
interests. As governments grow over time, moreover, employee unions
will get larger, better funded, and potentially more powerful. The
problem is likely to get worse unless something is done about it.

But what to do? There is no way to eliminate the conflict of interest
between government employees and the public at large. So the solution
must focus on weakening the power of public sector unions. A Catch-22
quickly emerges here, because the unions will use all their existing
power to defeat any attempts to take it away. Yet for reformers there
is no alternative but to try -- by pursuing legislation that prohibits
collective bargaining by government workers, for example, and
pressuring for "paycheck protection" laws that require unions to get
their members' permission before spending dues money on politics.

Success will not come easily, if at all. But for those who believe
that democracy should represent the public interest, the fight is a
good and noble one. It needs to be fought.

Mr. Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the
Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 education, is the William
Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford and chair of
its political science department.

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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