In 1980 William Clay, the president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO) told their convention that they must “learn the rules of the game,” which were “that you don’t put the interest of any other group ahead of your own.” They must be “selfish and pragmatic” and emphasize that “what’s good for the federal employees (is) good for the nation.”
PATCO ran into Ronald Reagan, a rare politician willing to stand up to them, and went out of business. But the nation’s air traffic controllers are still unionized and government employee unions are still operating under Mr. Clay’s rules of engagement. Their determination to put their own interests first mocks the notion of public servant. Instead of serving the public, they threaten our ability to fund anything other than their wishes.
In an earlier America, government unions were recognized as incompatible with public welfare. FDR in 1937 rejected government unionism, pointing out that collective bargaining “cannot be transported into the public service” because of “the very nature and purposes of government.” Roosevelt wasn’t breaking new ground here; he was expressing views widely held by American leaders including the founder of modern progressivism, Woodrow Wilson, and the resolutely conservative Calvin Coolidge.
How could we have been so foolish to reject the bright line between public and private sector unions these thinkers recognized? The difference is night and day. For starters, government workers own a monopoly on the services they provide, while private sector workers are unable to keep consumers hostage. They must be careful to keep their demands reasonable so that their employers aren’t priced out of the marketplace. For government workers there are no such boundaries. More is always better, there is no such thing as “enough.”
Government unions are also privileged in getting to pick the negotiators on the other side of the bargaining table. That’s why they’re the major financial supporters of the Democratic Party where teacher’s unions alone supply 20 percent of the national convention delegates. When both sides at the negotiating table are committed to union interests, the results are predictable. Government worker pay, once discounted for job security, is today about 30 percent higher than that earned by private sector workers for the same jobs.
Check out the Chicago Teachers Union to see the result of 50 years of public unionism. This is a union that delivers a terrible product for a financially failing entity. Just 20 percent of Chicago eighth-graders can pass a reading test, while fewer than 8 percent of 11th-graders are deemed college ready by a state test. Yet, Chicago teachers have received raises between 19 percent and 46 percent over the last five years, even though Chicago public schools are $3 billion in debt.
Chicago teachers average $76,000 in salary plus health benefits, pensions, paid days off and summer vacations. The taxpayers footing the bill earn an average of $47,000 annually. In the private sector, the company would be failing and employees would face job loss. The CTU’s response to this state of affairs? Demand even more pay raises and continue to resist efforts to weed out bad employees and provide higher-quality education.
Prior to this month’s strike, the union demanded a 30-percent pay raise over three years, but now seems willing to settle for only 16 percent. But the real point of contention was a plan by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to institute a teacher evaluation system, designed by teachers, that was more based on student academic progress.
Union president Karen Lewis put her foot down, insisting that 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs. The irony of admitting that so many teachers are non-performers was apparently lost on her. The union’s interest — job preservation for its members — must come first. And, in an election year, they mostly got their way.
FDR was right on this one. We never should have allowed collective bargaining to invade the public sphere and we shouldn’t have allowed public unions to amass huge war chests by extracting union dues from workers’ paychecks without their permission.
Now we’re in trouble. Bankruptcy, once unthinkable, is now a looming reality for local governments around the country unable to fund pension obligations to their retired workers. Even government doesn’t have infinite resources.