Democrats Diverging From Unions

Government employee unions have long been one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal and dedicated 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 – among the most politically powerful government unions – such support has paid off as Democrats have helped them resist popular school reform efforts that could threaten the government school monopoly, including school choice and charter schools.

That was a 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. Cracks finally are 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 D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who was a Democrat before he reregistered Republican and is now an Independent) mayors in Democrat-controlled cities are the ones who have faced the most dire conditions in the schools they were elected to oversee.

Both Mr. Fenty and Mr. 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 (and with a teachers union background, to boot) has joined the pro-reform chorus. In a speech last week, he denounced his city’s teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), as “one unwavering roadblock to reform.” He said, “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.”

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

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

Likewise, government employee unions exist to represent the interests of their members, not 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 that it is in union-friendly politicians’ interest to give the unions what they want because – 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, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo – yes, also a Democrat – soon 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.