January 17, 2015


Public Unions vs. the Public : a review of GOVERNMENT AGAINST ITSELF By Daniel DiSalvo (AMITY SHLAES, Jan. 15, 2015, WSJ)

The facts: Public-sector unions are not underdogs. Since 2009, membership in unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association has totaled more than the membership in traditional private-sector unions. The United Mine Workers, the union that resulted from the Harlan County conflict, counts under 50,000 active members, while the NEA boasts 2.5 million.

As Mr. DiSalvo shows, public-sector unions are also rich. Taken together, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually lobbying governments on behalf of their members. Our courts have ensured that funding for political activity will flow in the future by upholding rules that require payments from workers. Opponents of public-sector unions must content themselves with minor victories such as the recent Supreme Court opinion in Harris v. Quinn, which grants home-care workers, a narrow group, the right not to pay union dues.

This modern imbalance exists because of some long-ago shifts in federal law. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, permitting collective bargaining for federal employees. State and city workers, teachers and firemen were also unionizing.

The very timing of local elections, as Mr. DiSalvo demonstrates, has worked to the unions' advantage. Towns hold elections in off years as well as presidential-election years. Turnout in off-year municipal elections runs about 36% lower. Unions, which can get out the vote, thus enjoy a disproportionate say in off years and schedule their referendums accordingly. But presidential years can yield results as well. When public-sector unions "pull out all the stops," Mr. DiSalvo writes, "they almost always win." By voting for Prop 98--powerfully pushed by the teachers' union--Californians in 1988 guaranteed that four in 10 dollars of California's general fund would henceforth be spent on K-12 education. This pattern of victory replicates itself across the states.

The trend is a shame and a drag on the economy. For the costs of public-sector unions are great. "The byproduct of political management of the economy is waste," the author notes. Second, pension and benefit obligations weigh down our cities. Trash disposal in Chicago costs $231 per ton, versus $74 in non-union Dallas.

Posted by at January 17, 2015 7:04 AM

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