"As you know, every decision that impacts public school employees is made by an elected or appointed official. Because of this, it is very important that the members in your local association get involved and stay involved in the political process."
From the Michigan Education Association union pamphlet, “PAC Attack: Everything you need to know to create a PAC-tive local association!” This is part of a union “Building Full Capacity Locals” campaign.
Those two sentences distill what “collective bargaining” for government and school employees is really about: Giving government unions the power to impose political leaders on the rest of us whose primary agenda is to transfer an ever-increasing share of the people’s income to their members. It allows the union to command allegiance from elected officials who as managers are supposed to represent the interests of all the people.
Back in 1941, a political scientist named E.E. Schattsneider made the following observation about “Madisonian democracy,” the system in which competition between special interests prevents any one of them from getting control of the government:
“To assume that minorities will stop at nothing to get what they want assumes a degree of unanimity and concentration that does not often exist in real life. If it did, it might be possible to form dangerous unions of monomaniacs who would go to great extremes to obtain their objectives. Generally, however, people have many interests, leading to dispersion certain to destroy the unanimity and concentration of any group.”
When that was written there were no government employee unions with the power to coercively extract nonvoluntary dues from workers and to compel schools and local governments to collectively bargain with them, no matter how unreasonable their demands. Government employees then (and now) did however already enjoy “civil service” protections intended to insulate them from politics, which among other things practically guarantee life-long employment and job security.
In some states in the 1970s, politicians seeking political advantage made government employee unions the norm by granting them the sweeping powers referenced above. This allowed the unions to essentially tap taxpayer dollars, making them rich and even more politically powerful. One result was, for the first time in American history, a special interest had been created with both the resources and a level of “unanimity and concentration” sufficient to get control of the government.
This agenda of this special interest — government employee unions — is to continuously increase government spending, with mandatory collective bargaining diverting much of the spoils into their and their members’ pockets. As the sole “representatives” for government employees, a small group of political activists dedicated to expanding government power gained special access to — and allegiance from — elected officials.
In short, collective bargaining for government workers is the critical element in what is a fundamentally political operation, with one byproduct being lucrative above-market benefits paid to government employees.
In 2011, after decades of looting the public fisc (evidenced in Michigan by government and school employees collecting fringe benefits that exceed private sector averages by some $5.7 billion annually), governments and public schools have finally hit a “Greek wall,” where the giveaways become not just unsustainable in the long term but unaffordable right now.
In response, leaders here and in places like Wisconsin and Ohio have tried to trim-back some of the government-union powers and privileges that have brought their communities to the brink. The government unions are fighting back, seeking to intimidate these leaders with recalls (like the successful one of state Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc, and the ongoing one against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin), and referendums reversing the modest reforms that have been enacted (like the one that passed in Ohio). Cynically, they’re using the language of “civil rights” to protect a status quo that allows them to live well at others’ expense.
If the government employee unions are successful in preserving that status quo, we may indeed become “two Americas,” one consisting of well-paid “public servants” whose benefits and job security far exceed those of anyone else, supported by their struggling and insecure neighbors in the private sector, where they and their employers are bled to keep the rich benefits flowing to government and school union members.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.