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Edward Ring

Will a Bipartisan Coalition Restrict Public Safety Unions?

During the effort to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker suggested the exemption for public safety employees was necessary to avoid the possibility of a strike by “first responders.” The real reason may have been a political calculation; restricting the bargaining rights of all public employees including public safety could have triggered a losing battle. Cynics may argue that Walker, and other Republicans – from Ohio to Orange County – have stood on principle against public employee unions in general, but exempted public safety unions in particular since they tend to be heavier contributors to Republican political campaigns.

Fortunately, public sector union reform is something even Democrats are realizing is essential if governments are going to get budgets under control, implement labor-saving new technologies, reform public education, and have funds left over to rebuild and upgrade infrastructure.

Now a Democratic Senator in Wisconsin, Tim Carpenter, has picked up where Gov. Walker left off. An article in the Wisconsin Reporter entitled “Police union says Dem proposal on collective bargaining is retaliation,” describes Carpenter’s “Act 10 Equity” legislation that would “expand the state’s controversial restrictions on collective bargaining to the two sectors spared from the new law more than two years ago.”

Again, a cynic might suggest this is indeed retaliation – if those liberal teachers unions are going to be restricted, so should those conservative police unions. But if conservatives truly adhere to the fundamental principles of limited government and individual freedoms, it is the right thing to do.

With all public employee unions, the more restrictions on property rights or personal freedoms there are, the more public employees are needed to enforce them. Public employee unions are intrinsically in favor of bigger government and less freedom because that is how they serve their members and build their organizations. Even if public employee unions were banned entirely, public employees would still be extremely active and influential in politics, because their livelyhoods are intimately affected by public policy.

This conflict of interests – the fact that a bigger, more intrusive government serves the interests of government employees but does not necessarily serve the interests of private citizens – is magnified in the case of public safety unions. As noted in a UnionWatch editorial earlier this year “How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda,” as we enter an era of ubiquitous surveillance and automated law-enforcement tactics, it is vital that civil libertarians on both sides of the political spectrum recognize that government unions have a vested interest in expanding the size and the powers of government.

There are compelling reasons why law enforcement is more challenging that it has ever been. The globalization of crime, the emergence of cyber-crime, asymmetric terror threats and cultural upheaval, all combine to require police work of unprecedented scope and sophistication. But how we maintain the precarious balance between security and liberty should be a discussion that isn’t preempted by public safety unions whose primary agenda is to increase the payroll and power of their agencies. In Wisconsin, for example, they will still wield tremendous political influence even if their unions are subjected to the same restrictions as unions representing other public employees.

Governor Walker has recently opened the door to completing the work he started. As reported last week in Wisconsin Public Radio News and the Huffington Post, he said “state Republicans might expand the state’s controversial restrictions on collective bargaining to the two sectors spared from the new law more than two years ago.”

If Walker decides to try to finish the job, he may encounter resistance from Republicans who lack the courage of their convictions because they need to accept political contributions from public safety unions. But Walker may find unexpected support from Democrats.

Wisconsin, along with most states in America right now, is in the midst of an epic debate over whether or not public sector unions should be more heavily regulated, if not outlawed entirely. In a partisan, and very superficial context, it is a debate between Democrats and Republicans. In an economic context, it is a debate as to whether or not government employees should be permitted to use union clout to elevate themselves to positions of extraordinary economic privilege, exempting themselves from the challenges facing their fellow citizens. And in the related context of civil liberties, it is a debate as to whether or not unionized government workers are enabling a police state that ensures perpetuation of a status-quo favoring anti-competitive monopolies, wealthy elites, and government workers.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center, and the editor of

Related Editorials

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda

Why Public Sector Unions are “Special” Special Interests

The Special Privileges And Exemptions of Public Sector Unions

Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?

Public Safety Compensation Trends 1990-2010 (CPPC study)

Understanding the Financial Disclosure Requirements of Public Sector Unions

The Preexisting Political Advantage of Government Workers

California’s Government Unions Fight Reformers

The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions

Wall Street & Public Sector Unions

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