WSJ: A Union Education
In 1960, 31.9% of the private work force belonged to a union, compared to only 10.8% of government workers. By 2010, the numbers had more than reversed, with 36.2% of public workers in unions but only 6.9% in the private economy.
The sharp rise in public union membership in the 1960s and 1970s coincides with the movement to give public unions collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin was the first state to provide those rights in 1959, other states followed, and California became the biggest convert in 1978 under Jerry Brown in his first stint as Governor. President Kennedy let some federal workers organize (though not collectively bargain) for the first time in 1962, a gambit to win union support for his re-election after his cliffhanger victory in 1960.
It’s important to understand how revolutionary this change was. For decades as the private union movement rose in power, even left-of-center politicians resisted collective bargaining for public unions. We’ve previously mentioned FDR and Fiorello La Guardia. But George Meany, the legendary AFL-CIO president during the Cold War, also opposed the right to bargain collectively with the government.
Why? Because unlike in the private economy, a public union has a natural monopoly over government services. An industrial union will fight for a greater share of corporate profits, but it also knows that a business must make profits or it will move or shut down. The union chief for teachers, transit workers or firemen knows that the city is not going to close the schools, buses or firehouses.
This monopoly power, in turn, gives public unions inordinate sway over elected officials. The money they collect from member dues helps to elect politicians who are then supposed to represent the taxpayers during the next round of collective bargaining. In effect union representatives sit on both sides of the bargaining table, with no one sitting in for taxpayers. In 2006 in New Jersey, this led to the preposterous episode in which Governor Jon Corzine addressed a Trenton rally of thousands of public workers and shouted, “We will fight for a fair contract.” He was promising to fight himself.
Thus the collision course with taxpayers. Public unions depend entirely on tax revenues to fund their pay and benefits. They thus have every incentive to elect politicians who favor higher taxes and more government spending. The great expansion of state and local spending followed the rise of public unions.
Part of what makes jumping back into the proverbial saddle following the time I took off to prepare for the South Carolina Bar Exam is the fact that the entire world managed to change in the three weeks or so I went incommunicado. The entire Middle East caught fire. Wisconsin followed. Indiana. Illinois. The sheer amount of what happened, along with every angle for each story, has essentially rendered me incapable of knowing how to begin again. I’ve seen the headlines. The problem? All I have done for the past few days is look at those headlines and wonder: “Where do I start?”
Thankfully, this piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is the perfect way to begin anew. It explains, at its very core, the paradoxes that are the public unions. It may not be anything that you already did not know, but it is a great read nonetheless.
So, enjoy. It’s the first Assigned Reading in about a month. And it will be followed soon by more.