Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, in which he calls the rise of government unions “a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians, and fueled by campaign contributions.” This is a promising first step toward removing one of the most formidable barriers against the restraint of government spending.
As Pawlenty explains it, “Public employee unions contribute mightily to the campaigns of liberal politicians ($91 million in the midterm elections alone) who vote to increase government pay and workers. As more government employees join the unions and pay dues, the union bosses pour ever more money and energy into liberal campaigns. The result is that certain states are now approaching default. Decades of overpromising and fiscal malpractice by state and local officials have created unfunded public employee benefit liabilities of more than $3 trillion.”
Unions in general are a de facto arm of the State. No matter what prompted the formation of a given union, their final evolution in the modern era becomes symbiotic with Big Government. Unions have a keen appetite for the protective and anti-competitive measures an activist government can provide. They purchase it with campaign cash and bundled votes, which politicians crave. The union would be an essentially suicidal organism without government patronage, pricing its members out of competition for many jobs in an open market. As with so many elements of the unstable super-State, the union movement grew far beyond its original purpose, and now relies on government power to ordain the conditions necessary for its survival.
Public unions are a particularly aggressive, and expensive, example of the harmony between organized labor and Big Government. A union demands government intervention to prevent its workers from being exploited, and maximize their compensation. A union representing public employees is essentially the government lobbying itself to be more generous to itself, a process that is precisely as self-perpetuating as it sounds.
An outstanding example of this closed loop can be seen in the teachers’ unions, which Pawlenty’s Republican colleague Chris Christie has fought courageously since taking office in New Jersey. They donate fantastic amounts of money to politicians, mostly Democrats – in fact, the two major teachers’ unions are the largest overall contributors to Congressional campaigns. They are rewarded with the preservation of a monopoly environment that protects them from both competition and consequence. No degree of fiscal bloat or educational failure will get the teachers’ unions “fired.” They own enough political clout to keep kids imprisoned in failing public schools forever. One of President Obama’s early acts in office was shutting down a successful voucher program in the D.C. area.
Public-sector jobs serve as anchors to keep government spending high, as serious plans to reduce the size of government will, predictably, be denounced for all the jobs they would destroy. As Pawlenty points out in his Wall Street Journal essay, the government has added 590,000 jobs since January 2008, while the private sector has lost nearly eight million. Big Government bought itself some important life insurance with those hires, as every public-sector employee becomes a human shield against reformers, who would cause massive unemployment for the civil service by insisting on fiscal discipline.
Pawlenty has successfully defeated public union interests, facing down a mass-transit strike in 2005, launched because his administration “refused to grant them lifetime health-care benefits after working just 15 years.” Christie stops just short of challenging New Jersey teachers’ union officials to cage matches. When a union official claimed their tenure system “works” so they shouldn’t seek to reform it, Christie shot back, “It’s working perfectly well for him. He’s making $550,000 a year from the NJEA. It’s not working for the kids.”
The employees of the State don’t need unions to protect them from an exploitative employer. Instead, the unions join the State in a tag team match against taxpayers. There’s no question whose interests will get pummeled in that kind of fight. Pawlenty calls for reducing the federal pay scale, reforming government accounting practices, and tying civil-service benefits to market performance in the manner of a 401(k). He concludes by saying “the choice between big government and everyday Americans isn’t a hard one.” He’s wrong about that. The public unions will do everything they can to make it a positively agonizing choice. Everyday Americans are fortunate to have advocates like Pawlenty and Christie ready to climb into the ring on their behalf.