Why Do Public Sector Unions Even Exist?

Posted: Sep 02, 2014 4:30 PM

On the first Labor Day upon it's creation as a national holiday in 1887, there was no such thing as a public sector union. The idea of government workers going on strike for personal gain rather than serving the country seemed ridiculous. Even fifty years later, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt held steadfast in the government’s opposition to public unionization, writing in a now famous letter that civil servants have the “obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities.”

Fast forward nearly a century later, it is a tragedy that the country did not heed President Roosevelt's warning. Time after time, Americans have bore witness to public sector unions shutting down major functions of government such as the trains they ride on and the schools they send their children to because of government employee’s selfish interest in their paycheck rather than their “obligation to serve the whole people.” Meanwhile, the bargaining advantage that public sector unions have over inefficient, bureaucratic governments have put taxpayers on the hooks for billions of dollars in debt and unfunded public pension liabilities. On this 127th Labor Day, it is finally time to finally ditch public sector labor unions.

While such an idea may seem radical, it would actually be in the self-interest of government employees themselves. Public sector unions have a long history of opposing reforms that would reward individual employees for exemplary service to protect their bottom line of keeping the most members. For example, Michelle Rhee — former Chancellor of Washington, DC’s public school system — once proposed a plan that would reward successful teachers with high salaries up to $130,000 improving their students’ test scores. While such a proposal would seem like a bargain for any worthwhile teacher, the Washington Teachers Union rejected the idea outright. After all, rigorous evaluations may mean bad teacher get fired, which may mean less names on the union's membership rolls.

This drama has unfortunately played out time and time again across the country, as teachers unions oppose any minor attempt to be rigorously evaluated like any other profession. Recall the 2012 Chicago Teachers Unions strike that left nearly 400,000 students out of the classroom for nearly two weeks. After the dust was settled, the City of Chicago agreed to spend $1 billion more each year on teacher salaries (despite the fact that the average teacher already made a generous $76,000 per year). Lo and behold, the school district quickly learned that they could not maintain current operations while adding the extra cost and, as a result, shutdown 49 schools to keep their finances afloat.

How do unions get off Scott free from robbing the public treasury? The answer is the distinct advantage they hold over governments in labor negotiations. In the private sector, unions and employers are incentivized to reach a mutually beneficial collective agreement because they are negotiating over a set amount of the company's revenue. In the public sector, however, tax revenues seem limitless since the costs are diffused among millions of individuals. And if the government runs out, they can easily borrow more — for the children, of course. To grease the wheels for favorable collective bargaining, teachers unions like the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers donate millions of dollars to labor-friendly politicians each election cycle to squelch opposition.

President Roosevelt foresaw this power imbalance a century ago. In the above mentioned letter, the 32nd commander-in-chief noted, “The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations” since “[t]he employer is the whole people.” Nearly a century later, it is time to heed President Roosevelt’s wisdom by restoring the role of the public servant as truly that — working for “the whole people,” not just the profit motives of their union bosses.