The Emerging Nonpartisan Public Sector Union Reform Agenda

The Emerging Nonpartisan Public Sector Union Reform Agenda

Regardless of whether or not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the White House for the next four years, or Prop. 32 passes in California, or Prop. 2 passes in Michigan, there is a growing awareness among American voters, Democrats and Republicans, that public sector unions exercise too much influence in politics. Rather than reiterate the myriad reasons for this growing consensus, this post is to summarize some of the options for reform.

The National Right to Work Committee, no friend of unions, has just released their survey of Congressional candidate attitudes towards unions. More revealing than the responses, which apparently only strong supporters of union reform bothered to offer, is the survey itself. Because nowhere in these tough questions is the implication that unions should be abolished. Here they are:

1. If elected, will you support legislation to repeal the provisions in federal laws which authorize compulsory union dues?

2. Will you support repeal of existing federal laws which force employees to accept a union as their exclusive representative against their will?

3. Do you favor preservation of Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which authorizes state Right to Work laws?

4. If elected, will you support legislation to end union officials’ special immunity from prosecution presently enjoyed under the federal Hobbs Anti-Extortion statute?

5. Will you oppose the forced unionization of federal, state, county and municipal employees?

6. Will you oppose any revisions to federal labor law which impose new penalties on employers who resist attempts by union officials to impose compulsory unionism on their employees?

7. Will you oppose legislation that seeks to impose a so-called “card check” procedure as a means of unionizing employees?

8. Will you oppose all implementation of union-only “Project Labor Agreements,” which deny non-union contractors and their employees the freedom to bid on government projects?

9. Will you oppose federal legislation that seeks to establish or mandate union monopoly bargaining standards?

Can Democrats who support unions but want to curb unwarranted union influence in politics accept these provisions? The prevailing theme in the RTW questionnaire is that unions must compete for membership, instead of rely on favorable legislation and special exemptions that grant them powers enjoyed by monopolies. Could Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) embrace a union reform agenda if, simultaneously, the same theme might inform legislation designed to curb the power of monopolistic corporations and force them to compete? Breaking up the big banks the way Reagan broke up AT&T, or Teddy Roosevelt broke up the trusts a century ago? Implementing the Volker rule? Reinstating Glass-Steagall?

A guest columnist for Forbes, Sean Rust, in an October 29, 2012 post entitled “Reinventing Unions for the 21st Century,” states that today, “Market forces, rather than laws, should regulate union and business relationships.” He envisions this requiring unions to concede the right to exclusive representation, as well as the right to force binding arbitration in labor disputes. He argues this would “encourage unions to work for the approval of all employees and remain economically competitive.”

One writer who offered a constructive, centrist proposal for regulating public sector unions was Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for the Atlantic. In his in-depth article on June 7th entitled “The Problem With Public Sector Unions—and How to Fix It,” he describes his own realization that public sector unions have acquired too much power and are acting in their own interests instead of the public interest. He goes on to propose reforms that preserve many prerogatives of government labor interests, but attenuate those powers that he suggests have been the most harmful. He writes: “I am not ready, however, to outlaw all public employee unions. Instead, I’d preserve the right to bargain collectively while limiting the scope of that right. Public employees unions should be able to negotiate compensation packages, but only the total amount of compensation owed each employee for a period no longer than an election cycle, which would make the costs a lot more predictable and transparent, and build political accountability into the process.”

Any bipartisan discussion of how to reform unions in America today will have to focus on the distinction between private and public sector unions. To ignore this distinction is to suggest that a journeyman grocery clerk who earns $14.95 per hour is somehow comparable to a unionized firefighter who collects total annual compensation of well over $200,000 per year. To ignore this distinction is to suggest that a grocery store chain, competing with Walmart, is somehow as capable of elevating wages and benefits as a city or county that collects compulsory taxes. To ignore this distinction is to suggest that the union workers at your local grocery store had a role in selecting the CEO who manages them, or, conversely, that elected school board officials who oversee teachers aren’t typically hand-picked by the teacher’s union.

In the public sector, Democrats from New York to California are already rebelling against public employee unions. Governor Cuomo in New York, Mayor Emmanuel in Chicago, Mayor Reed in San Jose, and countless others, have earned the ire of their unions. Perhaps eventually they will be ready to set forth reform measures that not only address fiscal challenges of the moment, but will return significant power to voters and elected officials. They might consider Measure V, being voted on today in Costa Mesa, California. Measure V, for which the union opponents have outspent the proponents by 10-to-1, would end a requirement to pay prevailing union wages to city workers and would require voters to approve any increase in pensions. It would allow the city to contract with non-union firms to perform construction and maintenance projects. It would permit city employees to opt-out of union membership, union representation, and union political contributions. What should interest pro-union Democrats is that in no place does Measure V actually eliminate the right of unions to organize municipal workers. It merely eliminates some of their monopolistic prerogatives, and forces them to compete.

Somewhere between the extremes of banning union activity altogether, and our current situation of unions – especially in the public sector – exercising unwarranted and destructive influence, a bipartisan consensus will be found. Because the alternative is the economic collapse of our local governments. Democrats and Republicans will eventually work together to either prevent this from happening, or to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. At every level of government, by identifying corollary reforms to curb the power of anti-competitive corporate monopolies, Republicans might more readily induce Democrats to join them.

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