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The Hypocrisy of Public Sector Unions

During the industrial age, labor unions played a vital role in protecting the rights of workers. Skeptics may argue that enlightened management played an equally if not greater role, such as when Henry Ford famously raised the wages of his workers so they could afford to buy the cars they made, but few would argue that labor unions were of no benefit. Today, in the private sector, the labor movement still has a vital role to play. There may be vigorous debate regarding how private sector unions should be regulated and what restrictions should be placed on their activity, but again, few people would argue they should not exist.

Public sector unions are a completely different story.

The differences between public and private sector unions are well documented. They operate in monopolistic environments, in organizations that are funded through compulsory taxes. They elect their bosses. They operate the machinery of government and can use that power to intimidate their political opponents.

Despite these fundamental differences in how they operate, public unions benefit from the still common perception that they are indistinguishable from private unions, that they make common cause with all workers, that they are looking out for us. This is hypocrisy on an epic scale.

Hypocrites regarding the welfare of our children

The most obvious example of public sector union hypocrisy is in education, where the teachers unions almost invariably put the interests of the union ahead of the interests of teachers, and put the interests of students last. This was brought to light during the Vergara case, which the California Teachers Association (CTA) claimed was a “meritless lawsuit.” What did the plaintiffs ask for? They wanted to (1) modify hiring policies so excellence rather than seniority would be the criteria for dismissal during layoffs, (2) they wanted to extend the period before granting tenure which in its current form permits less than two years of actual classroom observation, and (3) they wanted to make it easier to dismiss teachers who were incompetents or criminals.

When the Vergara case was argued in court, as can be seen in this mesmerizing video of the attorney for the plaintiffs’ closing arguments, the expert testimony he referred to again and again was from the witnesses called by the defense! When the plaintiffs can rely on the testimony of defense witnesses, the defendants have no case. But in their appeal, the defense attorneys are fighting on. Using your money and mine.

The teachers unions oppose reforms like Vergara, they oppose free speech lawsuits like Friedrichs vs. the CTA, they oppose charter schools, they fight any attempts to invoke the Parent Trigger Law, and they are continually agitating for more taxes “for the children,” when in reality virtually all new tax revenue for education is poured into the insatiable maw of Wall Street to shore up public sector pension funds. No wonder education reform, which inevitably requires fighting the teachers unions, has become an utterly nonpartisan issue.

Hypocrites regarding the management of our economy

Less obvious but more profound are the many examples of public union hypocrisy on the issue of pensions. To wit:

(1)  Public pension systems don’t have to comply with ERISA, which means they are able to use much higher rate-of-return assumptions. Private sector pensions are required to make conservative investments and offer modest but financially sustainable pensions. Public pensions operate under a double standard. They make aggressive investment assumptions in order to reduce required contributions by their members, then hit up taxpayers to cover the difference.

(2)  One of the reasons you haven’t seen the much ballyhooed extension of pension opportunities to all workers in California is because the chances they’ll offer a plan where the fund promises a return of 7.0% per year are ZERO. Once they’re forced to disclose the actual rate-of-return assumptions they’re prepared to offer, and why, the naked hypocrisy of the public sector pension plans using higher rate-of-return assumptions will be revealed in terms everyone can understand.

(3)  When the internet bubble was still inflating back in the late 1990’s, and stock values were soaring, public sector unions didn’t just agitate for, and receive, enhancements to pension benefit formulas. They received benefit enhancements that were applied retroactively. Public pensions are calculated by multiplying the number of years someone worked by a “multiplier,” and that product is then multiplied by their final salary (or average of the last few years salary) to calculate their pension. Retroactive enhancements meant that this multiplier, which was increased by 50% in most cases, was applied to past years worked, increasing pensions for imminent retirees by 50%. Now, with pension funds struggling financially, reformers want to decrease the multiplier, but not retroactively, which would be fair per the example set by the unions, but only for years still to be worked – only prospectively. And even that is off the table according to the unions and their attorneys. This is obscenely hypocritical.

(4)  Take a look at this CTA webpage that supports the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. What the CTA conveniently ignores is that the pension systems they defend are themselves the biggest players on Wall Street. In an era of negative interest rates and global deleveraging, public employee pension funds rampage across the globe, investing over $4.0 trillion in assets with the expectation of earning 7.0% per year. To do this they condone what Elias Isquith, writing for Salon, describes as “shameless financial strip-mining.” These funds benefit from corporate stock buy backs, which is inevitably paid for by workers. They invest with hedge funds and private equity funds, they speculate in real estate – more generally, pension systems with unrealistic rate-of-return expectations require asset bubbles to continue to expand even though that is killing the middle class in the United States. This gives them common cause with the global financial elites who they claim they are protecting us from.

(5)  In America today most workers are required to pay into Social Security, a system that is progressive whereby high income people get less back as a percentage of what they put in, a system that is adjustable whereby benefits can be reduced to ensure solvency, a system that never speculates on the global investment market. You may hate it or love it, but as long as private citizens are required to participate in Social Security, public servants should also be required to participate. That they have negotiated for themselves a far more generous level of retirement security is hypocritical.

The hypocrisy of public sector unions isn’t just deplorable, it’s dangerous. Because public unions have used the unfair advantages that accrue when they operate in the public sector to acquire power that is almost impossible to counter. Large corporations and wealthy individuals are the natural allies of public sector unions, especially at the state and local level, where these unions will rubber-stamp any legislation these elite special interests ask for, in return for support for their wage and benefit demands. Public unions both impel and enable corporatism and financialization. They are inherently authoritarian. They are inherently inclined to support bigger government, no matter what the cost or benefit may be, because that increases their membership and their power. They are a threat to our democratic institutions, our economic health, and our freedom.

And they are monstrous hypocrites.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.