“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fred Siegel's History of Public Unions

Fred Siegel of St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute wrote a fairly comprehensive history of the public sector union movement in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Some salient passages included these,

"The first to seize on the political potential of government workers was New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The mayor's father, a prominent New Deal senator, had authored the landmark 1935 Wagner Act, which imposed on private employers the legal duty to bargain collectively with the properly elected union representatives of their employees. Mayor Wagner, prodded by Jerry Wurf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme), gave city workers the right to bargain collectively in 1958.

Running for re-election in 1961, Mayor Wagner was opposed by the old-line party bosses of all five boroughs. He turned to a new force, the public-sector unions, as his political machine. His re-election resonated at the Kennedy White House, which had won office by only the narrowest of margins in 1960.

Ten weeks after Wagner's victory, Kennedy looked to mobilize public-sector workers as a new source of Democratic Party political support. In mid-January 1962, he issued Executive Order 10988, which gave federal workers the right to organize in unions."

This is something which I believe the average citizen simply does not know. This unholy bargain did several things. First, it provided an added payoff to public sector workers who already received job security. Second, because Democrats initiated this, and championed unions generally, it tilted elected officials toward bigger government via more unionized employees. A built-in bias was created which most voters didn't understand.

As to FDR's worries about public sector strikes, Siegel writes,
"On July 1, 1975, New York sanitation workers walked off the job, allowing garbage to pile up in the streets of a Gotham already in the throes of fiscal crisis. In short order, cops objecting to furloughs imposed by the city's liberal Democratic Mayor Abe Beame shut down the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, with marchers carrying signs that read "Cops Out, Crime In" and "Burn City Burn."

On that same July 1, 76,000 Pennsylvania state workers went on strike against liberal Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp's austerity measures. Afscme's leader in Pennsylvania, Gerald McEntee, told his members "Let's go out and close down this God-damned state." And in Seattle, the fireman's union initiated a recall ballot on July 1 directed against the one-time union favorite, Mayor Wes Uhlman, who held back pay hikes in the midst of rising deficits.

Mr. Uhlman narrowly survived and he, like Beame and Shapp, calmed the situation by largely caving in to the striker's demands. But a line had been crossed: With New York's near-bankruptcy a visible marker, the peril posed by public-sector unionism became a problem for Democrats as well as Republicans."

 It's not the sort of thing which are Framers had in mind, is it? A permanent, unionized public sector workforce which could hold the citizenry hostage.

Why on earth, after these experiences didn't Republicans man up, expose this farce and begin to reverse course, out-sourcing everything via private contracts? That's the obvious solution. State and local governments could easily outsource fire and education employees and provisioning. Police could be handled differently, but, even then, distinguish between field officers and desk employees.

Siegel concludes his editorial by contending,

"Restraining the immense clout that government-employee unions have accumulated over the past half-century will be difficult, but not impossible. Civil rights for African-Americans and women was a fulfillment of the universalist American promise as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Collective bargaining by public employees was not rooted in deep-seated American tradition.

Instead, the decision to grant this privilege was a political decision designed to enhance the power of a pressure group whose interests, even many liberals assumed, would be at odds with those of the general public. Political decisions can be reversed."

I think he's correct in his observations. Public sector unions aren't a longstanding American value or desire. It's a stealthy accident of recent history which can, and probably now will be, reversed.

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