PATTERSON: Unions: The new barbarians

Government employees enrich themselves by robbing the public

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In a recent address to a union rally in Ohio, Vice President Joseph R. Biden underscored the threat to organized labor posed by the wave of collective bargaining-reform legislation sweeping the country, spearheaded by governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich.

“This is a fight for the existence of organized labor,” said Mr. Biden. “You are the only ones who can stop the barbarians at the gate!”

Mr. Biden’s use of “barbarian” to describe politicians - of both parties - who have come to realize that decades of union-negotiated public-employee contracts are bankrupting cities, states and whole sectors of the federal government (the U.S. Postal Service, for example) is quite interesting. The word conjures up images of Gothic hordes laying waste to Roman civilization, plunging the world into the Dark Ages. Given that government employees now comprise the majority of union members in the United States, public-sector unions form the core of the “civilization” Mr. Biden calls to defend. The reality is actually the opposite.

Historians have long debated the ultimate cause for the ruination of Rome - from the rise of Christianity to widespread moral degeneracy to the corrupting power of empire - but the proximate cause is beyond dispute. In August 410 A.D., the Gothic King Alaric and his barbarian hordes sacked Rome, the first time enemy hands had defiled the eternal city in nearly a millennium.

In a series of sieges leading up to the sacking, the Romans had attempted to make peace with Alaric, sending ambassadors to his camp to ask his price for sparing Rome. Alaric asked for all the gold and silver, movable property and barbarian slaves in the city. The Romans, seeing an offer they couldn’t refuse, obliged, delivering to Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 pounds of silver, as well as untold pounds of spices and silks.

That sounds a lot like what government employee unions have done to the coffers of our cities and states.

The cycle goes like this: Unions spend millions to elect pro-union politicians, who then give their union supporters fat contracts, which usually include generous defined benefit pensions, health care benefits that extend well into retirement, and budget-busting raise escalator clauses. If the politicians don’t show enough gratitude, unions threaten strikes, putting basic public services in jeopardy.

This vicious circle has brought many state and local governments across the country to the brink of insolvency. To give but a few examples, last August, the city of Central Falls, R.I., was forced to file for bankruptcy largely because of the city’s pension plan and its promised $80 million in retirement benefits for city employees, a sum five times the city’s general operating budget. And then there are the fiscal basket cases of California, New Jersey and Illinois, where government unions have long wreaked havoc on state budgets.

So who are the real barbarians? Big Labor is acting a lot like Alaric’s hordes, enriching itself at public expense, either not knowing or not caring about the poverty and decay its actions will unleash.

Matt Patterson is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the editor of Labor Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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