Are Government Employee Unions Losing the Democrats?

Government employee unions have long been renowned as one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal and dedicated supporting constituencies. For years, Democratic politicians have supported public employee unions’ agenda of increased government spending, leading to more government jobs and thus more potential union members.

For teachers unions — which are among the most politically powerful government unions — Democrats have helped them resist popular school reform efforts that could threaten the government-school monopoly, including school choice and charter schools.

That was great deal for the unions and their political allies, but a dead weight on everybody else, as taxpayers funded a continually expanding government sector, while a growing number parents saw their children stuck in underperforming schools. Now cracks are finally starting to show in that alliance — and they may get wider in the near future.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the nation’s boldest education reformers have been Democrats. From outgoing Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who was a Democrat before he re-registered Republican and is now an Independent), it is mayors in Democrat-controlled cities who have faced the most dire conditions in the schools they were elected to oversee.

Both Fenty  and Bloomberg saw the need for drastic action, thus their appointment and strong support for their respective school chancellors — Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein — both of whom pursued an aggressive reform agenda.

Now Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also a Democrat, has joined the pro-reform chorus. Not surprisingly, his city’s teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), wants no part of Villaraigosa’s reform efforts. Moreover, Villaraigosa himself has a teachers union background. To his credit, the mayor is striking back.  In a speech this week, Villaraigosa criticized the UTLA leadership in no uncertain terms:

Over the past five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership.

While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo. I do not say this because of any animus towards unions. I deeply believe that teachers’ unions can and must be part of our efforts to transform our schools. Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.

By partnering with the Los Angeles School Board, we created the Public School Choice program that is now allowing non-profits, charters, teacher groups — anyone with a proven track record of success — to compete to run new or failing schools. By 2012, over 50 low-performing schools will be under new leadership, with a new chance for success.

UTLA leadership fought against this reform.

Partnering with the School Board and the charter school community, we doubled the number of charter schools in an effort to raise our test scores and alleviate overcrowding.

Partnering with the Parent Revolution, we successfully passed legislation here in Sacramento, empowering communities to shut down, reopen or takeover a failing school if a simple majority of parents petition to do so.

Working with LA Unified, I founded the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to turn-around 21 of the lowest-performing schools.

And partnering with civil rights organizations and the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit to take a stand against the practice of seniority-based layoffs, which were disproportionately affecting our poorest schools and students of color.

At every step of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform.

Now let me pause to underscore the point once again that I come from an organizing background. I vociferously believe in the fundamental right for a worker to organize, to have a voice and a seat at the bargaining table. But union leaders need to take notice that it is their friends, the very people who have supported them and the people whom they have supported, who are carrying the torch of education reform and crying out for the unions to join them.

UTLA boss A.J. Duffy angrily dismissed Villaraigosa’s remarks, saying that, “Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools.” Yet pointing fingers at those responsible for the dire state of public schools is what is needed.

Duffy’s reaction, while unfortunate, is not surprising. For he and other government union bosses to change course, the incentive structure under which the UTLA, and government employee unions in general, operate needs to change.

As the late president of  American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, so honestly put it, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Until they do, Villaraigosa’s call on UTLA leaders to drop their opposition to his administration’s reform efforts and join him in making L.A.’s public schools better is likely to continue falling on deaf ears.

Likewise, government employee unions exist to represent the interest of their members, not of taxpayers. And government employees benefit from the growth of government, so the interests of public sector unions and those of taxpayers are fundamentally at odds.

Adding to the problem is the fact that it is on union-friendly politicians’ interest to give the unions what they want, since — in the classic concentrated benefits/diffuse costs public-choice problem — they’re more likely to protest at being denied greater compensation than taxpayers are likely to protest seeing their taxes go up gradually. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, also a Democrat, recognized this, though unfortunately once he was safely out of office:

The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians — pushed by our friends in labor — gradually expanded pay and benefits . . . while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages.

In government, unionization is greater at the state and local levels. For years, state and local governments were able to sustain their unionized employees’ generous compensation packages, as long as their economies continued growing. But since the nation’s economy went south, states and localities are struggling, and state and local politicians — Democrat and Republican alike — must face this crisis.

Indeed, in New York, Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo — yes, also a Democrat — may be headed for a showdown with government employee unions over wages and pensions. The unions won’t like it, but the taxpaying public will. In that regard, I think left-leaning Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum gets it right:

I sometimes wonder if [UTLA head A.J.] Duffy understands just how widely his union is loathed? Somebody should correct me in comments if I’m wrong, but as near as I can tell UTLA literally has no support anywhere from anybody that it doesn’t directly give money to. Everybody else hates them with a passion. That doesn’t mean Villaraigosa can win a big public battle with UTLA, of course, since they give lots of money to lots of people, but he might. If Villaraigosa plays his cards right, he’ll have about 90% of the city on his side. Pass the popcorn.

Indeed, this and other similar fights will be worth watching.

For more on public sector unions, see here and here.