A recent short paper by the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards examines the growth of public sector unions over the past 50 years and this trend’s implications for the future of American government. Although unions dominate the public sector today, it wasn’t always this way. It was the reinterpretation of the 1935 Wagner Act, legislation that allowed for collective bargaining of workers, in the 1960s and 1970s that allowed for the collective bargaining of public employees, thus beginning a wave of public sector unionization.

Today, public sector workers are unionized at a rate five times that of private sector workers. While the first half of Mr. Edwards’ paper is dedicated to the describing the rise of public sector unions and collective bargaining agreements, the second half focuses on the repercussions of such policy. As AWF has previously noted, public sector workers are compensated more generously than private sector workers raising the tax burden for American taxpayers. Annually, public sector workers earn an average of $11,000 more in wages and receive $30,000 more in retirement benefits than their private sector counterparts. Shifting money from taxpayers to politically connected unions hardly seems fair.

Edwards goes on to describe other ways unions foster a non-productive workforce:

Unions tend to protect poorly performing workers, they often push for larger staffing levels than required, and they discourage the use of volunteers in government activities. Further, they tend to resist the introduction of new technologies and they create a more rule-laden workplace.

In the private sector, businesses can mitigate such union-caused inefficiencies. In response to union demands for higher pay, for example, businesses can substitute capital for labor. Unfortunately, public-sector managers have little incentive or flexibility to make such changes.

Teachers unions have been some of the most heavily criticized public sector workers in the country. Earning tenure after two or three years, teachers secure lifetime jobs before proving they are competent. The New Yorker ran an excellent expose last year documenting the lengths at which teachers unions went to protect their own. The story below is a personal account of a troubled teacher, her union, and the New York school system:

On November 23, 2005, according to a report prepared by the Education Department’s Special Commissioner of Investigation, Adams was found “in an unconscious state” in her classroom. “There were 34 students present in [Adams’s] classroom,” the report said. When the principal “attempted to awaken [Adams], he was unable to.” When a teacher “stood next to [Adams], he detected a smell of alcohol emanating from her.

Adams’s return to teaching, more than two years later, had come about because she and the Department of Education had signed a sealed agreement whereby she would teach for one more semester, then be assigned to non-teaching duties in a school office, if she hadn’t found a teaching position elsewhere. The agreement also required that she “submit to random alcohol testing” and be fired if she again tested positive. In February, 2009, Adams passed out in the office where she had to report every day. A drug-and-alcohol-testing-services technician called to the scene wrote in his report that she was unable even to “blow into breathalyzer,” and that her water bottle contained alcohol. As the stipulation required, she was fired.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the U.F.T. until this month (she is now the president of the union’s national parent organization), said in July that the Web site “should have been updated,” adding, “Mea culpa.” The Web site’s story saying that Adams believed she was the “victim of an effort to move senior teachers out” was still there as of mid-August. Ron Davis, a spokesman for the U.F.T., told me that he was unable to contact Adams, after what he said were repeated attempts, to ask if she would be available for comment.

In late August, I reached Adams, and she told me that no one from the union had tried to contact her for me, and that she was “shocked” by the account of her story on the U.F.T. Web site. “My case had nothing to do with seniority,” she said. “It was about a medical issue, and I sabotaged the whole thing by relapsing.” Adams, whose case was handled by a union lawyer, said that, last year, when a U.F.T. newsletter described her as the victim of a seniority purge, she was embarrassed and demanded that the union correct it. She added, “But I never knew about this Web-site article, and certainly never authorized it. The union has its own agenda.” The next morning, Adams told me she had insisted that the union remove the article immediately; it was removed later that day. Adams, who says that she is now sober and starting a school for recovering teen-age substance abusers, asked that her real name not be used.”

Although teachers unions elicit the strongest emotions in commentators—and they should, the thought of children being taught by drunk teachers is disturbing—the U.F.T’s tactics in this short excerpt exemplifies how unions protect poor, unproductive workers. One way to combat public sector unionization is to ban public sector collective bargaining agreements, Virginia already has. Chris Edwards’ concludes by writing:

"Like other private groups, unions have free speech rights to voice their opinions about public policy. But collective bargaining gives unions the exclusive right to speak for covered workers, many of whom may disagree with the views of the monopoly union. Furthermore, collective bargaining is inconsistent with the right to freedom of association.17 Individuals are prevented from dealing directly with their employer and they can’t choose to be represented by another organization.

Collective bargaining gives a privileged position in our democracy to government insiders who focus on expanding the public sector to their personal benefit. The special position of unions is strengthened in states that have mandatory union dues and fees. Workers can opt out of paying the portion of dues going toward union politicking, but they have to leave the union and actively solicit to get back a portion of their payments.

Monopolies in business usually create higher cost and lower quality services. Monopoly unions create similar problems in labor markets. State governments should ban collective bargaining in the public sector, following the successful policies of Virginia and North Carolina. With the many large fiscal challenges facing governments—such as huge pension funding gaps—policymakers need flexibility to make tough budget decisions. But powerful unions make budget reforms very difficult, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, is finding out.

To put citizens and taxpayers back in control of their governments, collective bargaining and forced union dues should be outlawed in the public sector. Public employees should be free to join worker associations, but they should not be given a special legal status and handed extra power to block desperately needed fiscal reforms."