Government unions are not unions in any traditional sense of the word. They elect the bosses they “negotiate” with. They are paid through compulsory taxes rather than via a company that has to earn a profit in the competitive market. And they operate the machinery of government which allows them extraordinary latitude to intimidate any business interests who may challenge their agenda.
Among the informed, these assertions are beyond serious debate. Even supporters of government unions acknowledge them – just not on the record. But to inform the public, it is probably too abstract to question the legitimacy of government unions because they “elect their own bosses,” “use taxpayers money instead of earned profits,” or “control the bureaucracy.” Perhaps instead it is better to explain how union control of government harms people in their everyday lives.
To that end, here is a partial list of how the actions of government unions contradict their rhetoric, and betray the public they are supposed to serve:
(1) Demonizing “Profits.” From the classroom teacher to the professionally prepared press release, the rhetoric of government unions promotes the idea that “corporate profits” are unjust. The academic focus from primary school through public universities is invariably swayed, thanks to government unions, to challenge the capitalist system. Yet without profits there are no tax revenues. Governments survive financially because corporations make profits. Government unions support legislation that has made California the toughest state in the U.S. to do business. The impact: Brainwashed youth, and fewer successful companies offering fewer good jobs.
(2) Demonizing “Millionaires and Billionaires.” Government union rhetoric frequently resorts to accusing anyone who wants to expose their destructive hypocrisy as funded by “millionaires and billionaires,” as if that should automatically nullify their arguments. These unions have carefully nurtured a public hostility and resentment towards individual wealth. The problem, however, is that almost anyone who retires after a full career in public service is a millionaire – often many times over. The average full career pension for California’s state and local government workers is over $70,000 per year. The ordinary private sector worker would have to save at least $1.5 million to generate a $70,000 annuity for the rest of their life – with no guarantees. The impact: Higher taxes and reduced services to support government worker pensions that make them all millionaires, leaving the rest of us behind to pay for it.
(3) Defending “Working Families.” That is one of the mantras of the government unions. Fighting for the “working families.” But how does this work in reality? California is one of the hardest states to practice a profession or trade. Certifications and licenses require prohibitive amounts of time and money, excluding the most deserving, aspiring citizens. Workman’s Compensation insurance rates are among the highest in the U.S., making it much harder for small companies to compete and grow their businesses. Crippling regulations. Absurdly time consuming and expensive permitting processes. The impact: Reduced upward mobility, far less opportunities for low income entrepreneurs.
(4) Always “For the Children.” The level of hypocrisy here almost defies description. Government unions have imposed their agenda on education, turning public schools into propaganda mills, indoctrinating students to believe their success or failure in life is primarily determined by whether or not they have “privilege,” and whether or not the state provides sufficient benefits, instead of teaching them the skills they will need to succeed in life on their own. Government unions have defeated any meaningful attempts to hold teachers accountable, or allow principals and superintendents to effectively manage. What they have done to California’s rising generation of students can be accurately characterized as child abuse. The impact: A generation of Californians who are unprepared to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.
(5) Respect for “Contracts.” The selective moral outrage mustered by government unions when it comes to “contracts” is exemplified by their response to pension reformers who want to lower the pension benefit formulas – just for work to be performed in the future. Because back in 1999, these same unions lobbied successfully to raise pension benefit formulas not just from then on, but back to the day each active government worker began their career. According to the same body of California contract law, they claim these retroactive benefit increases were justified, yet they fight – and win – in court whenever anyone tries to decrease these same benefits only from now on. The impact: Taxpayers are condemned to bail out these financially unsustainable pensions.
(6) Fighting “Big Money in Politics.” The problem with this ersatz fight by government unions is simple: In state and local elections in California, nobody spends as much money as government unions. Just government unions, just in California, collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year in dues. About one-third of that, nearly $700 million every election cycle, is spend explicitly on politics and lobbying. An equal share probably goes to public education campaigns designed to promote the government union agenda. There is no special interest anywhere with the means, much less the desire, to challenge these unions. They are active in every political contest, no matter how small or how big, with access to as much cash as they need. The impact: Unions are the “big money in politics,” and their interests trump the public interest.
(7) Fighting “Big Business.” By now it should be clear enough – “big business” has no interest in challenging government unions. They collude instead, in a partnership where the government unions – who control legislation that will either favor or thwart business interests – are the dominant partner. And why shouldn’t big business partner with government unions? When oppressive regulations drive innovative competitors out of business, the monopolistic established corporations have the financial resources to comply. Why not let excessive government regulations destroy the competition? The impact: Less innovation, fewer new jobs, higher prices to consumers.
(8) Fighting “Wall Street.” This is the most ridiculous claim of all by government unions. Because when government unions successfully negotiate pay, benefit and hiring decisions that cause government deficits, Wall Street firms make billions underwriting new bond issues. And when government unions negotiate pension benefit enhancements, the union controlled pension funds invest even more money with Wall Street firms including hedge funds and private equity funds. Government is Wall Street’s biggest customer. The Wall Street influenced policies that have destroyed the ability of ordinary Americans to save for retirement or buy an affordable home have been a boon to the super rich and the pension funds. The impact: The government union alliance with Wall Street is a major factor in the hollowing out of America’s middle class.
The fact that most Californians still don’t understand the difference between government unions and private sector unions should come as no surprise. Government unions have spent literally billions of dollars over the past decades, hiring the best professional public relations talent in the world, to convince Californians they are on their side. But they’re not. Quite the contrary. Their hypocrisy is only matched by their corrosive impact on our economy, our freedom, and our democracy.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
Government Unions and the Financialization of America, May 24, 2016
The Hypocrisy of Public Sector Unions, March 15, 2016
Public Unions ARE the Political “Establishment,” February 23, 2016
In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016
The Alliance Between Wall Street and Public Unions, December 1, 2015
Moral Values That Underlie Opposition to Government Unions, October 13, 2015
How Government Unions Are Destroying America, September 22, 2015
Deceptive and Misleading Claims – How Government Unions Fool the Public, September 8, 2015
The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions, February 20, 2012
The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions, May 13, 2011