Guest Column

Labor pains...apocalypse now or later

Franklin D. Roosevelt, that famous union-buster, once said: "All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service."

Nevertheless, while the labor movement first started to balance inequities between employees and employers in the private sector, most states eventually granted public employees the right to collectively bargain. Today, government employees represent the labor movement's most valuable class of employees-in the United States there are more union members in government than in the private sector, a recent topsy-turvy development.

Roosevelt talked about the problem of allowing union bargaining in government:

"Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees. Upon employees in the federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of government activities," said Roosevelt.

"This obligation is paramount," he continued. "Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."

We're certainly witnessing this in Wisconsin, where thousands of public employees are protesting at the state capitol and teachers have walked out of their classrooms.

A bill in the Wisconsin Legislature would repeal collective bargaining rights and require public employees to pay a portion of their pensions and health care costs. In other words, they're being asked to make the same sacrifices that millions of employees in the private sector have made. Count on labor supporters to describing the Wisconsin bill as a labor apocalypse, while ignoring the due process protections and civil service rules that already apply to public employees.

The problem with unionizing government agencies is that unions are not constrained by the typical labor-managements incentives to cooperate for the longevity of the company. Government jobs can't be outsourced overseas or to a non-union state the way private industries can. And of course, unions in the government sector can invest billions to elect pro-labor politicians who will serve as their "employers" across the bargaining table.

Unions enjoy enormous privileges as representatives of government employees-they are legally permitted to force employees to pay for union services whether or not the employees want it. And employees are bound by the union's contract even if they'd like to seek services from another provider.

Commenting on the Wisconsin labor pains, President Obama is predictably defending his faithful campaign supporters. "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama said recently. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens," Obama said.

The question, though, is what to do when union contracts and benefits threaten to bankrupt entire states. The demise of the U.S. automobile industry is a frightening example of employers and unions negotiating themselves out of relevance. Do we want our cities and states to do the same? What's more important: protecting union privileges or a state's financial viability?

It's a choice political leaders in Washington state will soon face. Most will cave to the enormous pressure the unions generate.

FDR was right.

- Michael Reitz is general counsel

of the Freedom Foundation, a

free-market think tank in Olympia.


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