My Book Report on Plunder

One cannot help but wish that Steven Greenhut had managed to be a little bit more cool-headed when he sat down to write "Plunder!" Sometimes in this exposé of government employee unions in California, the author's anger gets away from him.

For instance, the opening to his final chapter consists of a quote from H.L. Mencken: "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." That's a little much. Nonetheless, Greenhut has written an often enlightening book about an important and underreported topic: government employee unions.

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In Greenhut's defense, he has been provoked. We all have, even if we don't realize it yet. From budget busting 30-and-out pensions to protections against traffic law enforcement to oversized political clout that blocks sensible reforms, Californians have suffered mightily from the rise of government employee unions. And since Michigan's government employee laws are similar to California's, most of Greenhut's warnings apply here as well

At its angry worst, the book remains informative. Greenhut's explanation of "3 percent at 50" pension rules, under which police officers can retire at the age of 50 with a pension equal to 90 percent of their base salary is a real eye opener, and he does a pretty thorough job of tearing down the usual rationales for such generous retirement terms. Contrary to union claims that police officers tend to die young, Greenhut documents that cops who make it to retirement age (and for all the dangers of the job, the overwhelming majority do) have a life expectancy that's pretty close to that of the general population. I wonder how many keyboards Greenhut broke as he typed this part of his manuscript: "Remember that those who receive these benefits will be retired, and pursuing some hobby or luxuriating on a Caribbean beach somewhere while you work later and later into life to pay for these excessive goodies." But again, the frustration is understandable; these benefits are pretty lavish, and the rest of us pay for them in the form of taxes.

As the book progresses, Greenhut seems to settle down, and the quality of his analysis improves. His description of the Schwarzenegger administration's failure builds on information that will be familiar to many, but he connects the dots well and makes a sound case that much of what went wrong can be traced to California's state employees, who had been running Sacramento for ages. Something similar can be said for his discussion of education: There's little here that will surprise experts, but his focus on the role of the California Teachers Association will be useful to all, especially to new activists brought on board by the "Tea Party" movement who are not familiar with the workings of government and the role of unions.

Greenhut's section on solutions is a trifle scattershot. While he has a fairly good vision of where he wants government to go — switch from defined-benefit pensions to something more akin to 401(k) programs, allow principals more latitude in assigning teachers, promote school choice and privatize — he's less than clear on how we get there. Do we pass legislation? Overhaul collective bargaining law? Rework collective bargaining agreements?

Greenhut ends up calling for the outlawing of public-sector unions, which would be, strictly speaking, unconstitutional because government employees have free association rights to join unions. As I have argued in a recent study on Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act, the problem is not unions per se, but state laws that institutionalize collective bargaining and effectively give union officials a veto over locally elected officials. Union membership is a right for those who want to join, bargaining is not. The distinction is critical, and appears to have been lost in the understandable outrage.

Greenhut's grim determination to confront the government union movement and get costs back in line is entirely appropriate. "Plunder!" is not a perfect book, but it is necessary and long overdue.


Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.