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Edward Ring

Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform

Across the United States there is an escalating political conflict over the role of labor unions in society. But it is inaccurate to characterize this conflict as one between Republicans and Democrats. There are members of both major political parties, as well as independents of widely diverse ideologies, who are concerned about civil liberties, the growth of authoritarian government, inadequate investment in infrastructure, and poorly funded social programs. Explaining to these diverse groups that public sector unions are a threat to civil liberties, impel authoritarian government, and preclude investment in infrastructure and social programs – and that by and large, private sector unions do not – is the key to successful public sector union reform.

While reformers who are immersed in the topic may consider this obvious, the fact that public sector unions are fundamentally different from private sector unions is still a relatively new concept to the general public. Some of these differences might be summarized as follows:

(1) Public unions elect their own bosses, private unions have minimal role in selecting their management.

(2) Unlike private unions, public union members run government agencies, which gives them the ability to intimidate their opponents with state-sanctioned force.

(3) Public unions derive their revenue from compulsory taxation, private unions depend on consumers voluntarily purchasing products and services.

(4) There is a trade-off between infrastructure spending that benefits private unions, vs. more pay and benefits for unionized government workers.

(5) Public unions and Wall Street financial interests benefit when public entities borrow money and enhance pension benefits, since financial firms underwrite the bonds and invest the pension funds. Private unions have no similar conflict of interests.

(6) Unlike private unions, public unions have an incentive to enact more laws even at the expense of civil liberties and economic growth, because it grows their organizations.

Recognition of differences between public and private sector unions can come from unlikely places. Last month the Boston Globe published a guest editorial entitled “Martin Walsh’s [Boston mayoral candidate] sensible kind of unionism.” The author, Hugh Kelleher, is executive director of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association of Greater Boston. He writes:

“Construction unions in Boston and elsewhere are cognizant of the bottom line in these key ways:

  • Unlike public unions representing teachers, police, and firefighters — construction unions provide no job guarantees. There is no tenure or seniority.
  • Our layoff process rarely involves any subsequent arbitration. Workers understand that their jobs depend upon performance and the availability of work.
  • How much notice must the employer give a union construction worker before layoff? Fifteen minutes.

The construction industry’s emphasis on reliability and performance offers lessons for city government.”

Imagine if public sector unions had to work under these rules. Job security would be based on job performance rather than seniority. And as for retirement security, why should members of construction unions oppose public sector pension reform? The retirement plans that benefit unionized private sector workers must conform to ERISA (ref. “Actuarial Assumptions and Methods), meaning their pensions are modest but sustainable, because they have to use conservative rates of return when calculating the present value of their future pension payment liabilities.

It’s not just more efficient work rules and sustainable pensions that differentiate unionized government workers from private union workers, however. It is the profound difference in overall incentives that drive each of them. Public sector unions want more tax revenue for themselves. Private sector unions want that money for infrastructure. And funding infrastructure remains a pipe dream as long as public sector unions successfully resist streamlining and modernizing government, and prioritize allocating tax revenue to more compensation and benefits.

The agenda of private unions for infrastructure – real infrastructure, by the way, not environmentally correct useless monstrosities such as California’s “bullet train” and delta tunnels – is matched by the agenda of liberal Democrats for social programs. There will never be adequate money for either, as long as every spare dime goes to pay public employees literally twice as much, on average, as private sector workers earn.

Where the interests of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans may intersect is depicted on the table below. As shown, the “left” may oppose a union reform such as Right-to-Work (RTW) in the private sector, but for the public sector, they may view it as the only way to rescue their ambitious agenda for infrastructure projects and social programs. The “right” may support Right-to-Work for all unions, but will recognize that the most egregious threat to economic health and property rights comes from the government unions, who might be diminished if they were subjected to Right-to-Work laws.




Another area of intersection between liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans would concern the special case of public safety unions. Despite troubling nationwide examples of how public safety unions use their immense power at the local level to negotiate unaffordable compensation and intimidate political opponents (ref. “Battle over police pensions in U.S. cities takes ugly turn,” Reuters, January 2014), Republicans have exempted public safety unions from public sector union reform legislation. Their omission, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania and elsewhere, not only leaves intact what are perhaps the most inappropriate types of public sector unions, but precludes an alliance with reform-minded liberal Democrats.

Finally, a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans may jointly recognize that public sector unions are partners with Wall Street speculators and middlemen; entities who contribute nothing to the productive economy. For years, bond underwriters and hedge funds alike have had union controlled cities and states – and their public employee pension funds – as their biggest customers, and both reap short-term gain from accumulation of bond debt and unfunded pension liabilities that will eventually wreak financial catastrophe – that process has already begun.

Liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans will never agree on the optimal size of government. But they can recognize together that public sector unions are the force behind an inefficient, over-built, over-compensated, increasingly authoritarian government that violates the spirit and diminishes the potential of the American dream, in all of its diversity.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.

Related Posts:

Avoiding the Oversimplifications of ‘Right Wing’ vs. ‘Left Wing’, December 16, 2013

How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Pensions, November 26, 2013

Bipartisan Solutions for California, October 27, 2013

Exponential Technological Advances and the Role of Unions, July 23, 2013

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda, June 18, 2013

Why Public Sector Unions are “Special” Special Interests, June 11, 2013

The Prosperity Agenda, April 2, 2013

Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?, March 12, 2013

Would ANY Public Sector Union Reform Appeal to California’s Democrats?, February 12, 2013

The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions, February 20, 2012

The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions, May 13, 2011

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