“If we don’t win this fight, there’s no other fight left.” That’s what New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie said soon after taking office in 2010, when he faced off with the unions representing some 400,000 state employees. Mr. Christie knew what was at stake when he pushed through reforms that included changes in future pensions and greater employee contributions for health care.
For decades, politicians in New Jersey and states and localities across the country had kowtowed to the unions, giving them what they wanted in exchange for political support or, at least, to keep the peace with them. Over time, it became clear that the resulting burden — high salaries, foolishly generous pensions and retirement benefits, and a lack of reform in areas like public schools — is simply too great, in the long term, for governments to bear.
Unless political leaders stand up to the public sector unions, the entire country is going the way of Detroit.
There were good reasons why, long after the labor union movement gained momentum in the private sector, the idea of government employee unions remained unpopular. In the early history of the United States, most political jobs were based on patronage. That system had advantages, such as political accountability (you could blame the party in power if government workers didn’t do their jobs), but also disadvantages (high turnover, political favoritism, and the fact that government workers spent a lot of their worktime on politics).
To cure those problems, civil-service reforms were instituted, creating a corps of professional, nonpolitical government employees. They were generally well-respected, well-paid and had decent working conditions. In exchange they stayed out of politics and organizing.
Even Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest political benefactor of American unions, opposed the idea of public sector unions. He declared in 1937, “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
By the 1950s, though, some politicians began to realize the potential advantages of politicizing the government workforce through unionization and forcing taxpayers to support a liberal political machine.
Unions were authorized for “collective bargaining” in New York City in 1958, in Wisconsin in 1959, and at the federal level in 1962. Over the next half-century, the labor union movement was transformed. In the 1950s, more than third of American workers in the private sector were members of unions, but public sector unions were inconsequential. As of 2009, members of public sector unions outnumbered members of private sector unions. By 2014, private sector union membership had fallen to 6.6 percent, but union membership among government employees rose to 35.7 percent.
As public sector unions became increasingly powerful, and increasingly partisan (giving more than 98 percent of their support, monetary and organizational, to Democrats), Republicans did little to counter these changes, constrained both by fear of the unions and by their sense of political reality. After all, government employees included the friendly neighborhood postman, the nurse at the public hospital and the cop on the beat. In many places, private sector unions brought to mind under-the-table payoffs, brass knuckles and Jimmy Hoffa, but public sector unions brought to mind your kids’ teachers.
Increasingly, though, voters and political leaders see public sector unions as a threat. It’s not just taxpayers or Republicans, either. If nothing is done about the unfunded liability for future pensions and benefits, tax increases won’t be sufficient to cover the shortfall. That means government programs favored by liberals and Democrats will be threatened. In addition, it’s increasingly clear unions are the main obstacle to educational reform, without which the country faces a catastrophic shortage of skilled workers and intellectual firepower.
Yes, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has ridden his successful stand against forced public sector union membership (expanded last month to include the private sector) to his current status as a major contender for president. Yes, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois is lauded among conservatives for his executive order to protect state employees from being forced to pay union dues.
But in Rhode Island, it was Democratic State Treasurer Gina Raimondo who fought the unions over pension reform; she’s now Gov. Raimondo. In San Jose, California, Councilman Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, was elected mayor after promising to continue the pension reforms of Mayor Chuck Reed. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, son of liberal icon Mario Cuomo, has fought with teachers unions, as has Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama, who just won a second term.
Nowadays, few things bring Republicans and Democrats together. But the existential threat of public sector union power just may do the job.
• Terrence Scanlon, former chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Commission, is president of the Capital Research Center.