Calling for Public Sector Union Reform is Not Anti-Union

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
January 29, 2013

Calling for Public Sector Union Reform is Not Anti-Union

Last week an article written by UnionWatch contributor Kevin Dayton was republished in its entirety by the State Building and Construction Trades Council. While we are pleased that the SBCTC is sharing our material with their members, we object to their characterization of UnionWatch as an “anti-union website.” We also invite them to consider the greater threats to overall worker prosperity.

UnionWatch is not anti-union. UnionWatch aspires to provide information that will elevate and enlighten the public dialogue on the appropriate role for unions, especially in the public sector, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more effective and equitable state and federal laws governing unions. Here are some policy options we have explored that might make unions more relevant, accountable to their members, and beneficial to the overall economy:

Voluntary Union Membership and Voluntary Union Representation

No worker should be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, and any worker who wishes to represent themselves in their relationship with their employer should be free to do so.

Politically Neutral Public Sector Unions

Public sector unions should not be permitted to collect dues via payroll deduction, nor should they be permitted to use any portion of member dues for political activities. Government employees should not be electing their own bosses, particularly since the politicians who must manage government workforces are not required to earn a profit in a competitive market, and therefore face far less adverse consequences when they give in to union demands for unsustainable wages and benefits.

Union-Free Public Safety Agencies

Public safety unions require the most stringent reforms of all since their members not only work for the government, but are the first responders who are responsible for saving lives as well as taking lives in the interests of public safety and to enforce our laws. Unions for these classifications of government workers should be banned. Public safety workers can return to having voluntary associations that work for the betterment of their profession and the community, but allowing them to unionize disrupts the sacred and precarious trust that citizens place in first responders.

Competitive Bidding on All Public Works Projects

Public works projects should always be free to select contractors based on business principles of cost and quality. Using a union contractor should never be a condition of using public funds. Unionized contractors should be free to bid on any public works project in fair and open competition with non-union contractors.

Within these reasonable constraints, unions have a valuable role to play in America’s future. The illustrious past that are the legacy of today’s unions include 40 hour work weeks, safe working conditions, and a host of other safeguards and restraints on predatory employers that we now take for granted. Well over fifty years ago, unions won the historic battles that define them, and instead of reinventing themselves to remain a productive player in American society today, too many of them have become adjuncts to monopolies and governments, tools of economic repression of the many for the benefit of a few.

In America unions have gravitated to the sectors where there is minimal accountability because the employer can just raise taxes and borrow money. In the public sector, executives, scientists, attorneys, doctors and judges now belong to unions. This is an absurd inversion of the mission of unions. These people aren’t blue collar workers who toil in dangerous factories, they are highly educated professionals. Public sector workers can’t have it both ways. If they have higher levels of education than the general population, and deserve higher average pay and benefits as a result, then their skills must be highly marketable. They should not need unions to represent them.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California may have more in common than they realize with the so-called conservatives and right-wingers who they likely assume oppose them at every turn. Because the reason the SBCTC is pushing high-speed rail is not because it is the best way to invest in California’s economy. They are pushing high-speed rail because it is the ONLY massive public works project that environmentalists don’t oppose.

If private construction unions care about workers, all workers, than they should push for projects that will invest in California’s future to lower the cost of living for everyone. There are an awful lot of exciting ways to invest in California to make life easier for everyone, all workers, all consumers, all ratepayers: Upgrade roads and freeways to accommodate smart cars that drive on auto-pilot, dig new last-mile utility corridors in every city and suburb to get electricity and telecommunications cables underground, build a LNG terminal off the Central California Coast, begin on-shore slant drilling to extract oil and gas from the Monterey Shale Formation, repair and upgrade aqueducts, bridges and dams, build desalination plants off the Southern California Coast, and in general, unlock restrictions on land development in California to make real estate affordable again to ordinary workers.

To do all this, the SBCTC will need to take on the environmentalist lobby, the public sector unions, and the Wall Street Bankers who massively profit from government deficits, government pension excess, and environmentalist charades such as CO2 auctions. The SBCTC faces a stark choice. They can continue to perpetuate an economically stagnant, elitist status-quo where only select union workers make a decent living while ordinary workers struggle. Or they can be truly pro-worker and embrace a new more competitive role for themselves in the 21st century. They can recognize the true threat to worker prosperity – global bankers and environmentalists who want to auction CO2 emissions permits to enrich themselves, allied with public sector unions who will channel their cut of the proceeds into funding their own payrolls. Focusing on this futile nonsense happens at the expense of the far more beneficial infrastructure projects noted above, and it crushes average consumers and ordinary workers.

It is not anti-union to explore ways to right-size and reform unions, nor is it pro-worker to advocate high-speed rail when there are so many better ways to invest in California’s future.

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