by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
One of the many things I like about North Carolina is a provision in the NC General Statutes that forbids collective bargaining by public employees. Thanks to that law, North Carolina public employee unions are, politically, relatively weak. In states without such laws, on the other hand, public employee unions are usually politically powerful, and they often use their power to promote policies that benefit state employees while harming the public they are supposed to serve.
The California Teachers Association is a notable example. It wields enormous political power in the Golden State, and it uses its power to promote polices that many citizens, including many teachers, believe are harmful to students. Part of what makes the CTA so powerful is the fact that, under state law, all public school teachers are required to pay fees to the union, regardless of whether they are members and regardless of whether they agree with the policies it promotes.
California is able to impose those fees on teachers because of the US Supreme Court’s1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The Court held, in Abood, that teachers may not be forced to join unions and pay union dues — doing so would violate their Constitutionally protected rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech — but teachers may be forced to pay union "agency fees" as long as the fees are used for collective bargaining and administration rather than for lobbying.
A group of California teachers have asked the Supreme Court to overturn Abood. As the petitioners in Friedricks v. California Teachers Association, they argue that, especially in the education context, collective bargaining is inherently political because the issues involved — things like teacher tenure, merit pay, and school choice — are not simply contract details, they are matters of educational policy. On these and similar issues, the petitioning teachers are opposed to the policies being promoted by the union, and they object to being forced to pay for the union’s advocacy of those policies. Last week the John Locke Foundation joined a number of other state public policy research organizations in an amicus brief supporting the petitioners.
Speaking of Public Employee Unions
In a recent review of Daniel DiSalvo’s Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences, George Leef provides an illuminating discussion of this important topic:
DiSalvo reminds us that for a long time, there was bipartisan consensus against allowing government employees to form unions and bargain collectively. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dismissed the idea of government employees unionizing, as did long-time AFL-CIO president George Meany.
Some Democrats, however, presciently sensed political advantage in allowing, or even encouraging public employees to unionize. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to approve of such unions. In January 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, which gave federal workers the right to form unions, although not always to engage in collective bargaining….
Quickly, a symbiotic relationship developed. Democratic (overwhelmingly) politicians would help the unions get what they wanted — higher wages and benefits, greater job protection, better working conditions — and in turn, the unions would give those politicians their full support. Once that relationship started, the unions learned how to exploit it to the utmost, not only squeezing government budgets tighter and tighter, but also taking over public policy making to a large extent.
Paraphrasing DiSalvo, Leef describes several examples of public employee unions promoting policies that harm the public, including, as it happens, policies promoted by the California Teachers Association. Describing another particularly alarming instance from the Golden State, he says:
Among the author’s most memorable examples is the way the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has become the 800-pound gorilla of state politics. Not only are the "correctional peace officers" remarkably well compensated (including large pensions) for rather low-skill work, but the union’s lobbying has driven up the demand for prison guards by pushing through the "three-strikes" law that puts more people behind bars by taking away judicial discretion in sentencing….
CCPOA also…interferes with standards and discipline. After it was discovered that some of the "correctional peace officers" had organized "Gladiator Days" where they enjoyed the spectacle of fights among the inmates, the union’s stonewalling made it extraordinarily difficult to fire those responsible….
Leef also notes that:
Arguably, the most serious effect of public unionism is its impact on pension costs.
Politicians tend to think in short run terms, so a promise of immediate union campaign support in exchange for the politician’s commitment to back pension increases is hard to resist. The future budgetary trouble that will eventuate will probably befall later officeholders, but even if the politician who takes the deal is still in office, he can count on union help in deflecting the blame.
That explains why, in states where public unions are strong, workers can often retire early and make nearly as much as they did when they were working. Sometimes they can even make more, by taking advantage of easily gamed rules about claimed job-related disabilities.
The cost of pension "generosity" is now hitting hard, particularly in the states where the Democrat/union alliance dominates. DiSalvo points to the rift that has opened between those Democrats who don’t want pension costs to gobble up many dollars they would rather put towards their priority uses, and those who won’t risk antagonizing their union backers under any circumstances….
Looking at the sweep of history, we have gone from a bad situation in early America where the spoils system of patronage gave the people high cost, inefficient public services to the fairly good system of largely non-partisan civil service, and now back to a new sort of spoils system controlled by the public employee unions.
Here in North Carolina there have been repeated proposals to change the law to allow collective bargaining by pubic employees, and there will no doubt be similar proposals in the future. To judge by the effect that public employee unions have had in other states, especially California, such proposals are, at best, misguided.
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