The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
February 20, 2012

The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions

It would be a simplification – not entirely inaccurate – to characterize the labor movement leadership in the United States of having a leftist, if not socialist ideology. But such a generalization ignores the wide schism that exists between the elites who run America’s labor movement and their members. Equally important, such a generalization ignores the inherent differences between public sector unions and private sector unions.

There are a host of well researched summaries of how public and private sector unions differ, including the following:

The Difference Between Private and Public Sector Unions

Peter Suderman, February 23, 2011, Reason

Beyond Public Sector Unionism: A Better Way

By David Y. Denholm, 2001, Public Service Research Foundation

Differences between private sector unions and government unions

Policy Brief, March 23, 2011, State Budget Solutions

The Trouble with Public Sector Unions

By Daniel DiSalvo, Fall 2010, National Affairs

The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions

By Tim Kowal, May 13, 2011, UnionWatch

These summaries point out several fundamental reasons why public sector unions are not the same as private sector unions, and therefore should be subject to far greater restrictions, if not banned entirely. For example:

Public sector workers are funded by taxpayers, not business entities. This means that their wage and benefit demands are not subject to market forces. If a union demands too much from a corporation, they will push it into bankruptcy. There are no similar checks on government worker unions.

Similarly, public sector workers can negotiate work rules that increase the inefficiency of the government operation, but again, the end result is not bankruptcy, but merely more government workers, higher taxes, and more spending and borrowing.

Government workers staff the agencies that regulate and oversee businesses and individuals. This means they have the unique ability to use the power of the government to harass anyone who opposes them.

But these fundamental differences between government worker unions and private sector unions emphasize structural issues and don’t focus adequately on the ideological differences between unionized workers in the public sector vs. the private sector. These ideological differences are not absolute, but are nonetheless very real and exercise profound impacts on the political agenda of public sector unions vs. private sector unions. There are at least three areas of ideological differences:

Authoritarian vs. Market Driven: Workers for the government exercise political power, whereas workers in the private sector exercise economic power. A private sector union can cause a company to go out of business, an economic threat, whereas a public sector union can cause their manager – the elected politician – to lose their next election, a political threat. This basic difference makes if far more likely that private sector union workers will have a better appreciation of the limits of their power, since if their demands have a sufficiently adverse economic effect on the company they’re negotiating with, that company will go out of business and they will lose their jobs. Another related manifestation of the authoritarian core ideology among government workers is the simple fact that the government compels people to pay taxes and provides only one option for services, whereas corporations must persuade consumers to voluntarily purchase their products if they want to stay in business. Private sector union members understand this difference quite well, because they live with the consequences if their company fails in the market.

Environmentalist Restriction vs. Economic Development: Workers in the private sector benefit from major construction projects and resource development. These projects create new jobs, and they yield broad societal benefits in the form of more competitive choices available for basic resources; energy, water, transportation and housing. When more development occurs, this increases supply and lowers prices. Development creates jobs and lowers the cost of living. Private sector union members understand this, but public sector union members have an inherent conflict of interest. This is because public sector workers benefit when roadblocks are placed in the way of development. An extended process of permitting and review, labyrinthine regulations impacting every possible aspect of development, creates jobs in the public sector. The harder the public sector can make it to build anything, the more fees they will collect and the more government jobs they will create. Ironically, the public sector unions have an identity of interests with the most powerful monopolistic corporations on earth in this regard, because they both benefit from barriers to competitive development. Private sector union members just want to see more jobs and a lower cost of living, which development ensures.

Internationalist vs. Nationalist: This area of ideological differences between public and private sector unions is perhaps the least mentioned, and the most subject to overlap and ambiguity. But identifying this difference is crucial to understanding the differing agendas of public vs. private sector unions. For example, the ideological agenda of the unions controlling public education in the United States are dramatically out of touch with the values of most Americans. In states where public education is controlled by powerful teachers unions, classroom materials and textbooks routinely demonize the role of the United States and Western Civilization in current affairs and world history. Their emphasis is to mainstream the marginalized, at the expense of teaching the overwhelmingly positive role played by democracy and capitalism in creating freedom and wealth. Another critical example is how job losses to foreign manufacturers affect members of these respective unions; it has an immediate, deeply negative impact on members of private sector unions, but is something that has no effect on a public sector worker.

It is impossible to discuss appropriate union reforms in the United States without identifying the critical differences between unions of government workers on one hand, and unions working for private companies on the other. And to speak only of the structural differences that create unfair and inappropriate advantages for public sector workers is not enough. One must also consider how these structural advantages impart a completely different set of incentives and a completely different ideological focus to unionized government workers.

Members of public sector unions who consider themselves in favor of free markets and resource development, and harbor pro-American patriotic sentiments, would do well to examine carefully how the leaders of government employee unions have powerful incentives to promote policies in direct opposition to these values.

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