Collective bargaining and government: A toxic brew

What happens when special interests gain control of the public purse? Some recent events provide a clue.

At the start of this school year, in Illinois, Chicago teachers proved harder to drag back from summer vacation than students. In Wisconsin, a court manipulated legal precedent to preserve government employee unions’ privileged status — after elected officials curtailed those privileges and voters upheld those changes by voting down a recall of the governor. In Michigan, a union-backed initiative on the November ballot would make union bosses more powerful than the legislature.

What is the common thread linking these events? State laws that grant government unions the power of collective bargaining. When elected officials transfer government authority to any private entity — a union or any other — an Orwellian role reversal occurs. The special interest group becomes the master over cost, effectiveness, and availability of government services, while taxpayer funds are directed to serve the prevailing special interest group.

For those reasons, and as recent history, shows, government unions will go through hell and high water to keep power over the outlays of public funds.

The Chicago Teachers Union seven-day strike provides a stark example of the moral hazards that arise from rigging the system in favor of government unions. Illinois state law “prohibits the CTU from striking over non-economic issues, such as layoff and recall policies, teacher

evaluations, class sizes and the length of the school day and year.” Yet CTU President Karen Lewis has stated that evaluation standards and layoffs policies are the reason the teachers abandoned their 350,000 students.

Citing the aforementioned state law, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel filed an injunction to take teachers off the picket line and put them back in the classroom. However, Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn refused to hear the case in a timely manner. As Judge Flynn dithered, taxpayer money was being allocated to “Children First” sites meant to keep open some schools in order to provide day care and meals to Chicago’s poorest students. The strike’s cost — in terms of both the delayed education of Chicago’s youth and loss of productivity caused by parents being forced to stay home and watch their kids — has yet to be tallied, but is bound to be considerable.

While the legal system all but ignored Mayor Emanuel, a Wisconsin teachers union’s flimsy arguments got their day in court and won — for now. On Sept. 14, Wisconsin Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled in favor of the Madison teachers union’s lawsuit, declaring most of Gov. Scott Walker’s public-sector collective bargaining reform unconstitutional. The courts took a sweeping and unprecedented approach that could jeopardize right to work laws everywhere.

In his curious decision, Judge Colas admits, “(I)t is undisputed that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining.” Yet, he ruled that limiting the conditions over which government unions can negotiate violates workers’ rights to freedom of speech and association. In other words, the Judge essentially decided that if public sector union power were restricted, unions would be less attractive for workers to join, therefore limiting employees’ speech and freedom of association.

In addition, Colas found that the reform law’s provisions freeing workers from forced union dues payments and holding annual union recertification elections violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause — essentially arguing that the law is not being equally applied if firefighter and police unions may legally coerce members to pay dues while other government unions may not.

Meanwhile in Michigan, the union-sponsored “Protect Our Jobs Amendment,” which is designed to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution, is appearing on the ballot this November. The initiative would give union bosses, who are not accountable to voters, power to overturn or block laws enacted by the present or future state legislature. If POJA becomes law, elected officials could never propose right to work legislation or any bill giving workers the freedom to choose whether to pay union dues without fear of losing their job.

Collective bargaining in government effectively grants power over the public purse to union chiefs. It is high time for elected officials to stop abusing their authority and return government to its proper function: to provide for the general welfare not special interests’ welfare.