Within the next few days the U.S. Senate may consider Senate Bill 3194, the “Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act,” that will require states to grant collective bargaining rights for all public safety workers, including police, firefighters and emergency medical workers.

Residents of California have had a front row seat to witness the consequences of allowing unrestricted collective bargaining by public employees. It is increasingly arguable that the root cause of many of California’s most serious problems – the insolvency of the State and most local governments, and the mediocre public school system, to name two big ones – are because of the influence of public sector unions. And public sector union control over California’s State government, which most insiders will acknowledge is “absolute,” is matched by union control over California’s county and city governments. Now we’re going to export California’s problems with public sector unions to the rest of the United States?

A report written by Kris Maher for the June 17th, 2010 Wall Street Journal entitled “Bill Gives Public Workers Clout,” quotes the Executive Director of the 325,000 member National Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Pasco, who said “unions wouldn’t be able to negotiate wages and benefits that governments couldn’t afford.” It’s interesting to wonder how Pasco can justify this statement, because if history is any indication, the opposite is going to happen.

As documented in “The Price of Public Safety,” in California, it is already common to see public safety workers earn, on average, over $200K per year in total compensation. Much of this compensation has to be used to meet current year funding requirements for their future pensions, because these pension funds today are almost universally insolvent. California’s local government entities are cutting virtually all other government services, including road maintenance, libraries, and public health programs, in order to free up enough money to pay compensation and benefits for their public safety workers.

The fiscal crisis facing public sector entities isn’t merely because of unsustainable compensation and benefits being paid to public safety workers, however, it only begins there. Once the other public sector employees see the political clout and the financial compensation the police and firefighters are acquiring, they too will unionize, even if they haven’t already. At this point you are set to experience California’s plight – where nearly every government employee is overpaid, and consequently nearly every government institution in California is facing possible bankruptcy.

Without a strong set of regulatory checks, allowing public sector workers to unionize creates an unfair political environment, where public employee unions collect mandatory dues – paid for by taxpayers – to amass literally hundreds of millions of dollars to use for political activity. Public employee unions routinely outspend fiscal conservative reformers by ratios of 5-to-1, or even 10-to-1, or more, essentially using taxpayer’s money to advance their agenda, which is bigger and bigger government to create more union jobs, and higher and higher rates of compensation for unionized government employees. Unionized government results in government employees, through their unions, purchasing our elections and hence our elected officials, who then decide on policy matters affecting the compensation and benefits paid to government employees. For this reason, and for the reasons stated below, national legislation should aim at reforming public sector unions, not expanding them.

Why unionization of government workers is a threat to the solvency of America’s Federal, State and local governments, as well as a corrupting influence on the democratic process:

  • Civil service protections already available to government employees make union membership redundant.
  • Government employee unions collect membership dues, funded by taxpayers, and use it for political activity without the consent of the taxpayers and often without the consent of the individual government workers.
  • The automatic transfer of taxpayer funds – via membership dues – into union coffers gives public sector unions an unfair financial advantage in political campaigns.
  • Public sector unions have used their ability to buy elections and control politicians to negotiate financially unsustainable, over-market rates of compensation for public employees.
  • The effectiveness of public agencies has been compromised by work-rules negotiated by unions that prevent, for example, efficient allocation of worker hours or ability to terminate incompetent employees.
  • Private sector unions must, ultimately, negotiate in good faith with their companies, or they will destroy the competitiveness of the company. Public sector unions have no such constraint – and the results are already clear – unprecedented government deficits and debt.

Most everyone respects and appreciates the services performed by public employees, especially those working in public safety. Calling for reform of public sector unions is not personal, it a matter of restoring fiscal sustainability and the integrity of our democratic institutions. Moreover, concern over the unique dangers public sector unions present is not to take issue with unions in the private sector, which at least operate in a somewhat self-regulating environment. Finally, concern over the excessive power of public sector unions does not necessarily equate to an excessively libertarian ideology – many of us would like to see more government investment in our economy. But currently much of our federal deficit spending is being wasted to pay grossly over-market wages to government employees instead of being used for strategic investments that will yield long-term returns to society, such as scientific research, upgraded infrastructure, and military security.

Whether or not unions should be allowed to operate at all in the public sector is debatable. But at the least, if unions are going to be permitted to organize public employees, there should be curbs on their ability to (1) compel any public employee to join a union against their wishes, and (2) compel any public employee to allow any portion of their union dues to be used for political activity against their wishes. Unless checks of this sort, at the least, are part of the package, Senate Bill 3194 is a very bad idea.

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