How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda

It would be redundant to summarize recent revelations concerning just how big America’s national security state has become. Two reports, both written in the last two days, do a really good job: “The Making of a Global Security State,” by Tom Engelhardt, published by The Nation Institute, and “5 Alarming Things We Should Have Already Known About the NSA, Surveillance, and Privacy Before Ed Snowden,” by Brian Doherty, published by the Reason Foundation.

It is encouraging that both of these articles address the same topic and summon the same moral concerns, despite being published by top-tier think tanks – the Reason Foundation and the Nation Institute – that occupy opposite positions on the right/left continuum. What is discouraging is neither of these articles explore the connection between unionized government and the alarming police state trends they describe so thoroughly.

The centrality of patriotism and law-and-order priorities blinds many on the right to the role of unions in skewing America’s public safety and national security agenda. Reverence for the labor movement blinds those on the left from seeing government unions as complicit in the erosion of civil liberties. These sentiments work against what ought to be a growing bi-partisan consensus: public sector unions do not operate in the economic or political best interests of the general public.

It isn’t hard to find examples from history of how elites co-opted the personnel of government in order to secure a commitment to preserving their power and privilege. From the tenuous relationship between the Roman nobility and their legions of centurions, to the party members of the cold war era communist nations and their security services – authoritarian regimes have always relied on their versions of the Nomenklatura. And the defining characteristic of the Nomenklatura, in all of its historical iterations, was privilege. They were economically exempted from the hardships that faced ordinary citizens.

The power of public employee unions in government is the primary reason that government workers now make approximately twice as much in total compensation as private sector workers. This headline from an a USA Today article explains how federal compensation has outraced the private sector “Federal workers earning double their private counterparts.” California Public Policy Center studies provide recent and ample evidence of the same phenomenon at the state and local level (ref. “Calculating Public Employee Total Compensation,” “California’s Public Safety Compensation Trends, 2000-2010,” “Self-Employed Workers vs. Government Workers – A Financial Comparison,” as well as compensation analyses for the cities of San Jose, Irvine, Costa Mesa, and Anaheim).

Nowhere is the disparity between the fortunes of unionized public sector workers and the private citizens they serve more glaring than in their respective formulas to earn retirement security. Social security pays, on average, about $15,000 per year, starting at age 68. California’s public servants, on the other hand, at the end of a 30 year career can expect to collect on average a pension in excess of $60,000, easily attainable by age 60 or sooner. Tell a self-employed person who must contribute 12.5% of their gross pay to Social Security why they should get 25% as much as a public servant, ten years later in life?

The failure of politicians – abetted by unions – to give all Americans the same deal as government workers alienates Americans from their government and impugns the motives of government policymakers. Frighteningly, it also alienates government workers from Americans.

As we enter an era of ubiquitous surveillance, for good or ill, it is vital that civil libertarians on both sides of the political spectrum recognize that government unions have a vested interest in expanding the size and the powers of government. The inordinate power of public sector unions in California is beyond debate among anyone who closely participates in the political process. Less obvious but equally real is the closely aligned interests of big government unions with the agenda of banks who profit by financing deficits and investing pension assets, large corporations who benefit from over-regulation because it kills emerging competitors, and the high-tech industry that invents and sells tools of surveillance and cyber-war.

A major step towards ensuring that America’s public safety and national security agenda is not divorced from the general interests of private American citizens would be a bipartisan call for all taxpayer funded, government administered retirement benefits to be earned by every citizen – public or private – according to the same set of incentives and formulas. The vehemence with which public sector unions would fight this necessary reform might finally provide sufficient evidence to liberals of how selective their concern is for “working families.” This one dramatic policy shift would go far towards realigning the interests of government workers with that of the citizens they serve.

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UnionWatch is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at editor@unionwatch.org

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