Review – How We Can Reform Unionized Government

Daniel DiSalvo provides a lucid narrative about the rise and power of state and local public sector unions in his his recent book, Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences. He shows how this comes at the expense of workforce accountability and fiscal restraint enabled by a dysfunctional electoral system riddled with conflicts of interest. Yet he also gives some fresh thinking on how the system can be reformed on a sustainable trajectory.

“America’s 40-year experiment with unionized government has been, on balance, misguided,” he writes. “While there are clearly benefits to this mode of organizing public sector labor relations—especially to public workers themselves—they do not outweigh the significant costs to the public. Unionized government overburdens taxpayers, makes services on which the poor and middle class rely less effective, and distorts the democratic process.”

While DiSalvo’s writing style isn’t literary, this professor of political science at The City College of New York-CUNY avoids careening into academic jargon for an accessible read. He focuses the book on state and local government unions since the scope of collective bargaining in the federal government is much more limited.

DiSalvo writes that he was drawn to labor studies in part for personal reasons: he’s mandatorily a member of the public sector union at his university and both his father and grandfather belonged to blue-collar unions. Yet DiSalvo draws important distinctions between members of early private sector unions compared to today’s public sector workers, who are generally more materially well off and more educated than their less-skilled counterparts. Private workers also cannot exert the political pressure that public unions can through elections, and public workers’ productivity is much more difficult to quantify than in the private sector.

disalvo unions by state

“I wrote this book to explain to family members, colleagues, friends, and engaged citizens that the values that underpin their support for unions in the private sector cannot easily be transposed to the public sector,” he explains. “In fact, those values often work at cross-purposes for an active government that shields citizens from the ravages of the market and supports society’s least fortunate.”

DiSalvo points out that as the costs of paying salaries and benefits for workers balloons (often paid for only by public debt borrowings), this means less money spent on poverty alleviation, public safety and other priorities. He cites how New York City now pays out more for retired than active police officers each year. And in the 2011-12 budget, New York state paid $6.8 billion in debt service, nearly 5.1 percent of all governmental funds receipts. New York debt service grew at an average annual rate of 9.4 percent in the last 10 years, well above average annual growth in state spending on both education (5.3 percent) and Medicaid (5.1 percent).  

“The states where citizens complain the loudest that their taxes are too high correlate almost perfectly with the states where public employee unions are strongest,” he reports.

Government employment accounts for more than 20.3 million jobs — some 17 percent of total U.S. employment — and 2009 was the first time, DiSalvo reports, that unionized public sector employees (7.9 million) outnumbered private sector employees (7.4 million) — even though there are five times as many workers in the private as in the public sector. What’s interesting is that private and public unions are sometimes in conflict.

disalvo membership

“The difference is that private sector unions depend on economic growth and public sector unions depend on government growth,” DiSalvo writes. “The two are sometimes at odds. Furthermore, sometimes private sector unions also seek government contracts, say, for road construction, and want tax revenue directed to projects they care about rather than into the pockets of their public sector union counterparts.”

DiSalvo offers recommendations for reform, though as Gov. Scott Walker’s experience in Wisconsin shows many of his ideas would come at high political costs. His ideas include limiting the variables allowed under collective bargaining.

“In most places pensions are not bargained over, but they should be omitted from negotiations in places where they are,” he suggests. “Another is to remove health benefits from collective bargaining agreements and return the matter to elected officials, because these benefits are one of government’s biggest spending commitments. Finally, government should index for inflation the upper limit of union wage demands.”

Does unionized government work for the people or do the people now work to pay for unionized government?

He also recommends increasing the retirement age for receiving public sector benefits (many government workers are allowed to retire in their 40s and 50s) since the rate at which government workers are retiring is faster than among the private workers, and by 2030, the number of retired public workers will equal the number of people employed by state and local government.

He also suggests requiring that government-collected union dues be used exclusively for collective bargaining—not politics.

“If government unions wish to engage in politics they should do it on their own dime, without government facilitating it,” DiSalvo rightly argues.        

DiSalvo writes that government unions, especially teachers unions, which comprise the largest bloc of public unions (6.9 of the 17 million state and local government employees in 2010), used to be a bi-partisan problem that Democrats were willing to address. He points out that old-school liberals backing private unions like Franklin Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia and George Meany opposed public sector unions, “As a matter of duty, public services, they argued, must not be imperiled by strikes. It also seemed natural to maintain that the people (i.e., the government) cannot strike against the people.”

“Insofar as liberals want government to do more to create more equal opportunities, protect citizens from market failures, and lift up the poor, having to defend the costs and inefficiencies imposed by public sector unions is a major drag,” he writes, saying of the Democratic Party, “It cannot advocate effectively for working-class Americans when the labor movement is dominated by public employees, many of whom are white-collar professionals with college degrees.”

disalvo union contributions

However DiSalvo highlights cases of Democrats like Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Andrew Cuomo tangling with teachers unions. Connecticut Governor Dannell Malloy, a Democrat, has struggled with his state’s unions in an effort to balance the state’s budget.

“In collective bargaining negotiations with the government, the people’s elected representatives partially cede control of the bureaucracy to unelected labor leaders,” he writes. “Many policy choices are then the outcome of negotiations between officeholders and unions, rather than the expression of the people’s will channeled through their representatives … The fundamental question, to put it grandiloquently, is whether unionized government works for the people or the people now work to pay for unionized government.”  

DiSalvo says while his message resonates with conservatives, in some ways he hopes more liberals will read his book. Democrats dominate at the ballot box in liberal, urban, highly unionized areas. Considering the inherent conflict of interest – i.e. union members make political donations and often control the politicians who are supposed to be managing them – in today’s public union system, the book is a useful wakeup call for Democratic politicians who seek to serve the broader public interest rather than a few narrow ones.

 Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.