Of the 14.3 million people that the Department of Labor says are currently union members, almost half, 7.1 million, work in public sector jobs. That means about one out of every three government workers is in a union. That’s a stark contrast to the private sector, where the unionization rate is just 6 percent, or about one out of every 17 workers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the modern labor movement’s real strength is thanks to government jobs.
How did this happen? Philip K. Howard, chairman on the nonpartisan, nonprofit reform group Common Good, examines the phenomenon of public sector unions and how they rose to power in his new book Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions. The short answer is that public sector unions are shielded from the market forces that keep private sector unions in check—a government agency is not in danger of going out of business. Public sector unions also have an in-built advantage when it comes to bargaining. Management is typically an elected official who needs the union’s help at election time and fears having it as an enemy.
Public sector unions can in effect be represented at both sides of the bargaining table, Howard notes. Unions have these advantages to insulate themselves from any criticism or challenges to their power while warping public policy to their will. It’s a sobering read. The unions pressure the government to devote more public funding to bolstering the workers, diverting funds that would otherwise go to public services or maintenance of public infrastructure.
“Public unions have broken the chain of democratic accountability. Police chiefs, school principals, and government supervisors at all levels have lost their ability to make the judgments about who’s doing the job and who’s not,” argues Howard. He points to studies showing that even the worst, most abusive police officers rarely get fired, let alone punished. A Washington Post survey put the dismissal rate for police officers at 0.2 percent. A separate study on New York City teachers found a dismissal rate of 0.01 percent. Attempts at reform have repeatedly run aground in the wake of incidents of police misconduct and parent’s frustrations with school policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reform is hard because, while the unions are laser-focused on preserving and protecting what they have done, elected officials are torn between being accountable to the public and maintaining good relations with the unions. The public, meanwhile, tend to be focused on more immediate concerns, like their own taxes, and may not see the connection between what the unions do and how that affects the government.
Howard’s solution to this problem is to challenge the legality of having public sector unions in the first place, or at the very least curtail what they can do. “Political activity by public unions should be ruled unconstitutional. The Supreme Court need not create a broad loyalty doctrine. It needs only to hold that organized political activity by public employees involves an unavoidable conflict of interest with the core values of the Constitution,” he argues. Once shorn of their power to sway elected officials, broader reform should be possible.
It’s an ambitious agenda, to say the least. If, for good or ill, the politics last few years have taught us anything, it is that leaders willing to make audacious moves and challenge long-held norms can go far.