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Davis, California

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Column: Unions, round two

I was getting worried for a bit there.

Before last week, I had written two quarters of columns inspiring zero outraged letters to the editor, not one frustrated op-ed and perhaps half the e-mail – positive and negative – I used to receive as an undergraduate columnist. I don’t particularly enjoy being disliked, but I would not write if I didn’t get the feeling that people were reading and thinking. Debate is crucial in finding the wisest choices for our society.

Of course, I always hope the feedback will be positive, but I am not so naïve as to think that even a moderate conservative would be politically at home on the UC Davis campus. Thinking that perhaps my subjects weren’t controversial enough, I decided to discuss something I had never written about before in detail: unions.

Turns out, yes, people are reading. No, most of the feedback was not positive.

Last week, I wrote that unions haven’t helped my working career but that the right to unionize for the private sector remains crucial in my view. I also expressed support for the attempts by some Republican governors, led by Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, to cut the compensation for government unions and severely curb their collective bargaining abilities.

Here in California, Representative Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) has introduced more targeted legislation (AB 961 for you policy wonks) to end the power of Golden State unions to bargain for better pensions.

Mansoor’s bill may never be heard in a Democratic-controlled committee, let alone survive a committee vote, make it to the floor, pass in a general Assembly vote with accompanying Senate legislation, and get signed by Gov. Jerry “I built a political empire on unions” Brown. With California’s current crop of elected officials, substantially diminishing public employee unions’ bargaining power is highly unlikely.

But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. Philosophically, we need to re-examine the justification behind public sector unions.

“All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” said a prominent figure in labor disputes during the Great Depression. You might assume that the speaker was a CEO, a corporate fat cat who’s looking to make even more money on the backs of hardworking Americans, or a union buster delighting in the misery of others.

Yet, none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued that public sector unions were unnecessary. Not one state even allowed such unions until 1959. The first state to do so? Wisconsin.

Many would have you believe that, without the right to collectively bargain, public employees would end up something like the trampled factory workers of a newly industrialized Britain 200 years ago. These folks neglect the historically very recent addition of such rights for those employed by the taxpayers, along with the fact that limitations on public employee bargaining are not unheard of.

Virginia and North Carolina outright forbid public sector unions, and no low-level bureaucrats are starving on the streets of Raleigh. Virginia is even tied for first on the list of effective governments from the non-partisan Pew Center on the States.

You also won’t hear it pointed out that public and private sector unions are, by their very nature, bargaining for something different. Private sector unions seek a more equitable distribution of business profits. Public sector unions seek more money from the taxpayer. There is no profit in government. Only taxes.

Additionally, the cozy relationship between many legislators and the unions who fill their campaign coffers makes it very likely that you and me, the taxpayers, will be left to foot a hefty bill. Business owners control their own money, and it’s their own loss if they give away too much. Elected leaders control OUR money, and it’s our loss – and their gain – if they’re generous with public employee compensation.

“Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests,” my favorite columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote last week. He cited an example that strikes close to home for us: “California’s pension costs soared 2,000 percent in a decade thanks to the unions.”

What has that enormous increase in pensions done to the California budget? Our state has an unfunded liability of many hundreds of billions thanks to ridiculous promises made to government unions by government officials. The precise amount of the unfunded liability is unknown because those in charge don’t want it to be known.

The only way to stop the rapid expansion of public employee costs is to end the unnecessary practice of allowing them to unionize. If we don’t, they’ll simply continue to put it on our tab.

Assuage ROB OLSON’s worries by e-mailing him at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.

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