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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Public-sector unions must be excluded from politics
Peter C. Hansen  (December 13, 2010, 2:38 pm)

Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal today on the destructive impact of public-sector unions on government expenditure. The whole thing should be read, but here's his diagnosis:

The majority of union members today no longer work in construction, manufacturing or "strong back" jobs. They work for government, which, thanks to President Obama, has become the only booming "industry" left in our economy. ...

[A]cross the country, at every level of government, the pattern is the same: Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.

How did this happen? Very quietly. The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.

Public employee unions contribute mightily to the campaigns of liberal politicians ($91 million in the midterm elections alone) who vote to increase government pay and workers. As more government employees join the unions and pay dues, the union bosses pour ever more money and energy into liberal campaigns. The result is that certain states are now approaching default. Decades of overpromising and fiscal malpractice by state and local officials have created unfunded public employee benefit liabilities of more than $3 trillion.

If there is a good reason for a public-sector union to exist (which is debatable), there is no legitimate reason whatever for a public-sector union to have a right to participate in election activity. I have written about this before here and here.

The double-dipping public proletariat are not the downtrodden. They are supposed to be skilled or otherwise able workers who can compete in the labor market. They are maintained by an organization that can obtain revenue by threat of prosecution and seizure, and which is constantly scrutinized by scandal-seekers looking for instances of unfair treatment. To get around the State's sovereign immunity from lawsuits, they can be (and are) granted extraordinary legal protections, such as an independent employment tribunal. They can't strike, but neither can most people. If they are unhappy, civil servants can strike the way most people do – by resigning and finding an alternative job in the enormous private sector. An HR officer is an HR officer, after all, whether at the Department of Education or at Johnson & Johnson. Even where concerns exist over preventing corruption and the "revolving door," criminal laws and new civil actions are better remedies than cosseting an entire workforce.

In short, civil servants aren't naturally special. If people want to work for the civil service, great. If they don't, then they should go elsewhere and the State should figure out how to attract and retain talented people in the free market.

Once the State has a workforce, it is true that a "staff association" may be useful for channeling concerns from the ranks to upper management and the Legislature. This provides an additional protection for workers, particularly those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Once that staff association gets to help choose the Legislature, however, a perverse system is set up. Overseers who before were publicly appointed are replaced by those privately appointed by the system they oversee. The old overseer's self-interest was commingled with the electorate's interests. The new overseer's self-interest is instead conjoined with that of the union. The new overseer must not serve the electorate, but the union, and thus the union-run civil service the overseer is tasked to "govern." Instead of the public "watching the watchers," the inmates now run the asylum. Doubling-dipping, insane pension promises and spending crises are the predictable results.

A politicized public-sector union is not like any other interest group. It does not seek to influence or preclude government interference in its private interests. Instead, the union represents the government to the government. This is the reason for the "self-inflating balloon" phenomenon of the modern NJ government. The executive chooses a Legislature that will expand the executive. This closed circle of backscratching has nothing whatever to do with the public interest. By seeking simply to add mass and draw ever more resources to itself, a politicized public-sector union is nothing more than the DNA of a tumor on the body politic. It can and must be neutralized to improve the public's health.

Politicized public-sector unions have largely shut the NJ electorate out of the management of the civil service. The public must simply pick up the tab determined by the unions and their agents in the Legislature. The public-sector unions accomplish this goal by providing – wherever an election takes place – a standing organization and ready funds to support their favored candidate, who will protect their government rents. While the unions cannot win every battle, they only need to win 51% to ensure a permanently privileged place for civil servants over their salary-paying neighbors. The ultimate goal is to have enough public-sector union members so that they and their hangers-on can win the needed 51% every time. This will allow permanent diversion of inordinate public resources to an oligarchy of civil servants. At least in some areas, this tipping point has already been reached. At such point, it may become impossible absent a crisis (like the present one) to remove the tumor. The emaciation of New Jersey – its ongoing loss of population, particularly in the vital middle-class area – is a symptom of this wasting condition.

It may be observed that in addition to being a threat to the public, a public-sector union is anti-democratic even within its own ranks. If non-unionized civil servants would contribute, organize and vote for big-government candidates no matter what, there could be no objection to banning (superfluous) political activity by public-sector unions. In reality, however, the union's political activities are not superfluous. The union has an independent impact on elections. By taking money from members who would otherwise contribute to smaller-government candidates, or who are indifferent to politics, the union suppresses political speech by its "dissident" members, and forces indifferent members to speak for expanding government. This amounts to a State-supported body requiring State employees to support the growth of a union-run State. Once again, the comparison to a tumor is sadly apt. For all political purposes, the politicized public-sector union ensures that the civil service is directed to wildly growing itself, no matter the cost to the host organism.

Finally, it should be understood just how strangely selective and clandestine are the political rights conferred on public-sector unions. Let us leave aside the backroom arm-twisting and day-to-day lobbying that goes on under the guise of "legislative oversight," inter-branch "coordination," or "conferring with a candidate." Let us look simply at eligibility for such work.

Let us imagine that the army allowed its members to organize in order to collectively contribute to candidates and provide servicemen to work on elections to ensure the "fair treatment" of soldiers by the electorate. Shocking? How is this different from having a cop union collect mandatory dues and provide election-day turnout workers? Why should the type of uniform matter? After all, both groups of public servants may carry guns when on duty, and both are presumably patriotic rule-of-law fanatics. In fact, the army is the less risky group to have participating, since its members aren't charged with patrolling around election stations and enforcing compliance with election-day laws. ("Does that opposing side's voter van have a tail light out? Better pull 'em over ....") The vast majority of cops are no doubt fair, but even a few bad apples can undermine the democratic process. Want an example of a NJ cop willing to abuse his position and other people's rights? How about Sheriff Larkin?

As one further thought-exercise, let us imagine the public outcry if those driving people to polls or waving signs outside voting stations on behalf of a public-sector union had to wear pinneys reading "Government Employee." People – no matter what their political persuasion – do not like to have the government tell them how to vote. Seeing government officials overtly working for a internally coercive organization of government officials, to turn an election the way those officials want, would be revolting to anyone not already in league with those officials. Hiding the fact doesn't make it any more acceptable.

To restore public control of the public service, the political activity of public-sector unions must be ended. This is not only sound management, it is a straightforward democratic imperative.