Taking on the public employee unions

Taking on the public employee unions

We long have argued that public employees should not have the right to strike. And that’s whether they be public school teachers, public transit workers or any and every iteration in between.

Simply put, allowing those “public servants” hired to deliver public services should not be allowed hold the strike cudgel high over the head of the public it is charged with serving.

But it’s time to go one major step further, a step that first was proffered – if not preferred — decades ago by hardly the “usual suspects”:

Those employed by the government at any level should not have any right to be a part of any labor union.

The catcalls from the left certainly will come quickly and loudly. We will be labeled “right-wing extremists” and worse.

Well, if we are, so, too, were Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, who, in their day were the exemplars of “progressivism” and the perversion of classic “liberalism,” respectively.

Which author and lawyer Philip Howard reminds us in his new book, “Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions.”

Howard recently sat for an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Mene Ukueberuwa.

“Most people in policy and government assume that public unions are a state of nature,” Howard lamented to The Journal scribe, who adds the context that “while private workers first organized en masse in the 1870s, union contracts didn’t creep into government until the mid-20th century because leaders feared losing their leverage.”

As Howard further notes, “Teddy Roosevelt, an original civil-service reformer, created a policy that basically said we’ll guard public employees against political firing, but we are not going to give them anything that looks like tenure.”

Per Ukueberuwa, “That’s a reference to guidance Roosevelt issued in 1902 mandating that no labor rules could impede the firing of federal workers.”

And Howard reminds that “FDR was firmly against public unions.  He understood that there was an inherent conflict of interest in public employees bargaining against government.

“They’re supposed to be working for the people, not getting more out of them.”

Another contextual point from The Journal’s reporter:

“That’s why two years after FDR blessed private unions by signing the National Labor Relations Act, he forbade public unions with equal fervor. ‘The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,’ wrote FDR in 1937.”

As Ukueberuwa reminds, “The dam against public unions broke in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy allowed collective bargaining in the federal workforce.”

But while Howard calls that “payback for union support,” he says the spread of labor unions to state governments were more about the growing liberal zeal of the 1960s.

Howard offers that the “incentives” of public employee unions “are different, because public workers are not at risk of overreach. If a private union asks for inefficient work rules, the company will go out of business or move to another place and they will lose their jobs. But government can’t move.”

That is, as Ukueberuwa notes:

“There’s almost no limit to what politicians can take from the public purse and give to employees, as long as each offer is small enough to evade headlines. So workers get incremental benefits that add up to insolvency, like zero healthcare premiums and mass exemptions from vital job duties.”

As The Journal notes, Howard’s position is not simply a new book but pretty much an outline for a coming federal court challenge to public sector unionism.

On what basis? Per Ukueberuwa:

At the federal level, Howard will argue that the Constitution forbids the president to make agreements that limit his own essential powers, including the power to fire employees freely. And he cites multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases that make just that case.

At the state level, Howard is prepared to argue that unions strip elected officials of their governing power, violating the Constitution’s mandate that states have a republican form of government.

More than few legal beagles will scoff at these obviously long-shot attempts at stripping labor unions of power that they, as the record shows, never were intended to have in the first place.

But Philip Howard makes a very compelling argument showing the total person that public-sector labor unions in this country have become. Whether his legal case can gain a fair hearing is another question.

By the way, Howard cites one example (he could have cited scores more) of just how run amok public-sector unions have become:

“[Last week] the New York transit union gave an example for the ages. It blocked the subway system’s plan to sync its schedule to new ridership norms, with fewer trains on slow days and lightly traveled routes and more trains on busy ones.

“The change would have saved $1.5 million a year, benefited riders and preserved workers’ paid hours. But an arbitrator shelved it … because the union couldn’t bear the ‘variations in start and end times.’

“[Labor unions are] not just inefficient. They’re designed for inefficiency,” he reminded.

And, in the process, obviously wasting trillions of public dollars.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).