The goings-on in the states with public sector unions have me fuming just a bit. These actions reconfirm my support of Right to Work laws like we have here in Virginia. Some of my career has been as a practicing civil engineer with the Soil Conservation Service’s watershed program designing flood control dams. In the engineering profession, from college to membership in professional societies, an engineer is discouraged from being involved with unions. It is considered unprofessional to bargain collectively, as that is something a professional in any field should be able to do on his or her own.
I do value freedom of association, and I support a person’s right to join or not join a union. I abhor, however, compulsory unionism. That is one reason why I enjoy living here in Virginia and was disappointed when the State Senate turned its thumb down this year on putting our Right to Work law into the state’s Constitution.
Public sector unions have been a 50-year mistake in the United States. A crucial distinction has been lost in the arguments over the proposals made by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Government unions are not the same as private sector unions in any sense.
Traditional, private sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It was said that in World War I, our soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in the West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent and deadly – a Monongahela mine explosion in 1907 claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Before unionization and many other New Deal-era reforms (FDR opposed the idea of government employee unions), the federal government had little power to reform these poor conditions by legislation. But government unions have no such horror story on their side supporting their reason for existence.
Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted the federal ban on government unions. Civil-service regulations and other laws had guaranteed good working conditions for federal employees for generations. I know, as I was one of them, having started with the government in 1953 as a student. The argument for public sector unions was never made on moral, economic or intellectual grounds. It was always political.
Traditional organized labor, the backbone of one of our two major political parties, 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 government unions were already in place, local liberal politicians benefited both politically and financially, so he took the idea national.
His plan worked perfectly. Public union membership skyrocketed, and government union support for JFK’s party skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections with 98.5 percent of that money going to the Democrat party 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 – public unions are the nation’s foremost advocates for increased taxes at all levels of government.
This gets to the real problem with government unions. Wisconsin labor officials note they have already given in to many of their governor’s specific demands, but they do not want to lose their right to collective bargaining – something the Governor is not advocating by the way. But in my opinion, losing the right to collective bargaining is exactly what should happen.
Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer’s money putting the public interest at odds with union interests, just as we have seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government until we are at the breaking point today. California’s public sector pension costs soared 2000 percent in the last decade thanks to unions.
Labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the NY City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Don’t you wish we could all do that?
It’s terribly unwise to have government employees bargaining with their government employer. It creates a dysfunctional system where growing government becomes its own reward. The Cato Institutes Michael Tanner notes that federal education spending has risen by 188 percent in real terms since 1970, but we have seen no significant improvement in test scores. I doubt that the number of student enrolled has risen by 188 percent in that time period, which might justify such an increase. And why is the federal government involved with education in the first place? Isn’t education a state and local responsibility? That is another issue entirely. Look at our nation’s Constitution.
Many states and cities face the clear potential of bankruptcy today. They must make large cuts in government spending. The states in the worst financial position tend to be those with public employee unions. Curbing union excesses in these state would be a huge start in bringing financial stability back to those taxpayers.