The ultimate reform for public employee unions: ditch them

In the wake of yesterday’s bigger-than-expected margin of victory for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his recall election, we thought we’d highlight just what his reforms have accomplished so far and suggest the “ultimate” reform: end public employee unions by making collective bargaining illegal for government employees in Utah – in effect, simply turning public employee unions into professional associations.

Governor Walker’s major reforms included:

  1. requiring public-sector workers to contribute more to their pension and health benefits
  2. restricting collective bargaining for most workers and making dues collection more difficult

What was the effect of these reforms? According to the The Wall Street Journal

  • property taxes in Wisconsin fell for the first time since 1998, down 0.4 percent in 2011
  • Walker’s reforms have saved Wisconsinites more than $1 billion
  • school districts avoided teacher layoffs and saved taxpayers millions of dollars, including $800,000 in the Brown Deer school district alone

According to Governor Walker’s campaign website:

  • the reforms erased a $3.6 billion budget deficit and created a $154 million surplus
  • the improved business climate resulting from the reforms has created 35,000 jobs since Walker took office

Luckily for Utahns, Utah “is a right-to-work state, allowing the right of persons to work, whether in private employment or for the state, counties, cities, school districts, or political subdivisions. This right may not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in a labor union, labor organization, or other type of similar association” (see here). Only 5.8 percent of Utah workers are members of a union, the 12th lowest rate in the nation.

This all brings us to this question: Why should public employees be allowed to unionize and collectively bargain in the first place? Police officers, firefighters, teachers, Social Security staff, parks and recreation workers, public works employees and so on are — first and foremost — public servants.

Public employees are paid by and intended to serve the public, the taxpayers who make their livelihoods possible. In return, public employees are expected to provide goods and services. Delaying the normal functioning of government through collective bargaining negotiations simply shouldn’t be an option for public employees. Crime doesn’t wait for a new collective bargaining agreement, nor do fires or the needs of students to learn.

Utah has already made progress on this issue. In 2001, Sutherland helped create the Voluntary Contributions Act. In a 2011 Mero Moment, Sutherland President Paul Mero describes what happened:

The very first year I worked at Sutherland Institute I was called by a Utah legislator to go up to the Capitol and help craft some language that would remove the ability of public employee unions to deduct political contributions from their state-run payroll checks. That bill, called the Voluntary Contributions Act, passed, was challenged by the unions in court, and was ultimately upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Its net effect was to deplete the political funds of public employee unions in Utah.

The State Budget Solutions website describes in detail the effect of the Voluntary Contributions Act on public employee unions:

Before the law was adopted, about 68 percent of Utah Education Association (UEA) members made annual contributions to its political action committee. After implementation, the number of contributors fell to 6.8 percent-a 90 percent drop-off in teacher contributions. Another government union, the Utah Public Employees Association, was forced to shut down its PAC after deficit spending for several years. The funding decline was so serious union officials had to resort to absurd stunts to cajole members into contributing. At the UEA’s 2005 annual meeting, UEA president Pat Rusk rode into the auditorium on a motorcycle, dressed in leather pants and vest. Her t-shirt was emblazoned with a candid plea: “Girls Just Want to Have Funds.” This was particularly significant inUtahbecause it is also a right-to-work state. Public employees only pay union dues if they want to, but those same union members overwhelmingly refuse to contribute even one dollar to their union’s political spending.

It is time for Utah to take the next step: end collective bargaining for public employee unions altogether, allowing them to continue functioning as true professional associations. As Paul described in that Mero Moment,

Employee unions, in general, have a place in conservative philosophy. Historically, unions or guilds served to build community where none existed. They provided a sense of belonging and served to humanize a sometimes very inhumane free market. But today’s unions are not like those of yesteryear. … Seeking the common good used to be a union hallmark. Today, it’s all about selfishness.

Selfishness, found in union attempts to delay or disrupt the normal functioning of public services solely to obtain more money and power, has no place in any political philosophy. That is why collective bargaining for any government employees in Utah should become a thing of the past.