One insufficiently expressed reason that government unions are fundamentally different from private sector unions is that nearly all entry level electoral positions are invisible to nearly all voters. They are relatively uncontested minor political offices where nobody knows the candidates, and often candidates have to be found. And who usually steps up as candidates? The government workers who, as elected officials, will manage government workers.
While entry level elected positions may be relatively invisible and perceived by voters as relatively insignificant, nothing could be further from the truth. These anonymous low profile elected positions, well over 10,000 of them in California, control all local spending, which is where more 75% of all California’s local and state tax revenue is authorized and spent.
Can you name the members of your local school board, your utility commission, your public safety commission? What about your healthcare district, sanitation district, harbor commission or airport commission? Can you even name your county supervisor, or your city councilpersons? These elected officials, collectively, manage well over $300 billion in local government spending each year in California, about three times as much as the state budget. They propose and approve bond measures, borrowing money against tax revenues. They approve pension benefits and collective bargaining agreements. Most of the money we pay in taxes, or owe as taxpayers when our taxes are used to pay interest, is spent and borrowed by these people.
Who would want such a job? Who would even know about such a job? The answer is obvious – in nearly all cases, the people who care the most about all this money are the people whose jobs depend on this money – government workers.
The recent proposed Costa Mesa charter city amendments (download charter) dealt with the conflict of interest caused by government workers holding elected positions by including the following provision:
“The members of the City Council shall not be eligible to hold any other office or employment with the City during the period of their term of service, and members of the City Council shall not be eligible to hold any employment for compensation with the City for a period of one year following the termination of their position on the City Council.”
The built in incentive for public employees to run for the elected offices that manage their organizations is a preexisting political advantage that favors a government ran not by the people, but by the people who work in government. From what other ranks will 20,000 to 30,000 candidates step forward each election cycle in California to compete for over 10,000 entry level political offices, if not from the ranks of those employees who work in the organizations these elected officials will run?
This is the fertile political landscape upon which operate the public sector unions. Here, stated with brevity by recent UnionWatch contributors Patrick Semmons and Will Collins, is yet another excellent explanation of why public sector unions are themselves – completely unlike private sector unions – part of an incestuous, anti-competitive, anti-democratic circle of insiders wielding political power:
“Public-sector unions donate lavish sums to pro-forced unionism politicians, who in turn protect and expand union officials’ special privileges. This cozy relationship helps to minimize public scrutiny of everything from bloated pension funds to unnecessary public works projects to inefficient union work rules. It also ensures that union officials’ power to collect mandatory dues from nonmember employees remains unchallenged. Union bosses and their political allies profit immensely from this relationship, while taxpayers and nonunion workers are left to foot the bills.”
Allowing public sector employees to unionize creates compounding conflicts of interest: The candidates themselves are typically public employees with a natural incentive to favor policies that further the career interests of public employees, and the public employee unions have a natural incentive as well to favor policies that further the interests of the unions – bigger government, more government pay, more government workers. Democratic governance at the local level already favors the interests of government over the public interest because of the self-selecting nature of the candidates who step forward.
The fact that local elections are dominated by public employees running for positions whereby they will manage themselves does not justify banning public employees from running for office, although reasonable restrictions like the one tried in Costa Mesa’s proposed charter city amendment are good ideas. But the fact that people who are already working in government are always most likely to gravitate towards becoming candidates – running for offices that most people have never heard of, yet collectively controlling over $300 billion in spending each year in California – is another reason why public sector unions are unique from private sector unions. Because the union’s ability to compel government workers to pay dues or agency fees adds overwhelming financial clout to back a field of candidates that is already inevitably populated primarily with active or retired government workers. It is another reason why public sector unions should be regulated far more strictly than private sector unions, if not banned altogether.