I Don’t Hate the Government; Its Unions Are a Different Story

As a libertarian I am often asked why I “hate” the government. “Hate” is a strong word, so I’ll leave the question’s key assumption for another day. But for now, I’ll take the bait with a short and partial answer: government unions.

Notice I don’t call them “public sector” unions. That would mean falling into the trap of seeing government employees as “public servants.” It sure sounds noble, but, as a parent, I want my children to have career goals worth emulating. And I don’t think “public service” is something to emulate.

That probably sounds too harsh. And it may be. So, take a breath and brace yourself for some words that may seem surprising – though they shouldn’t be.

Government may be a necessary evil, but it is still necessary and requires workers to carry out its legitimate roles and responsibilities. I get that. A republican form of government relies on individuals – at the national, state and local level – willing to participate in this unique American experiment begun those few short centuries ago.

So necessary, yes. But it is still necessarily evil, and that’s a word I don’t want to replace. Let me explain.

Thomas Jefferson, in his original draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, wrote, “[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

Yet, such sinful tyranny is what government unions perpetrate on us every day.

Think about it. Government unions spend millions of dollars every election cycle to boost politicians who then are all too willing to do the unions’ bidding, in the hope of gaining more union campaign contributions in the future. There’s no “union vs. management” fight here – union advocates sit on both sides of the contract negotiating table. And they’re negotiating over our money.

What has this gotten the government unions? Plenty.

On the eve of the recent government shutdown, President Obama inadvertently defined the problem: “I think it’s important that everybody understands the federal government is America’s largest employer.”

Government should not be the largest employer of anybody anywhere. But it is, even after removing 1.4 million active military personnel from the count. And that’s just at the federal level. Throw in state and local and the numbers skyrocket.

There are now more union members who work for government entities than for private businesses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  For government union leaders, this means more members, which means more dues to spend on politics.

Then there are the perks that government unions gain for their members, and which are unseen in the private sector. Consider the following.

First, there’s collective bargaining over services government provides as a monopoly. Government employees police our streets, pick up our trash, put out fires in our homes and forests and even control our access to air travel. People, quite simply, don’t like being at the mercy of unionized workers who can withhold essential services (OK, maybe much of the security theater in our nation’s airports isn’t quite “essential”) when they seek concessions such as higher pay.

Second, under a practice known as “official time,” government employees perform union duties unrelated to their government responsibilities on the taxpayer dime. That’s right. Taxpayers foot the bill for union representational activities that should be covered by member dues. Money being fungible, this frees up even more union resources to spend on politics, which invariably involves lobbying for greater compensation and against reforms.

Official time’s cost to taxpayers? $155 million or 3.4 million hours in 2011, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s last report on official time – which was released only after much badgering from members of Congress.

Tackling the government union issue is a challenge facing most governors. It dealt former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a major political loss. Now, as states and cities face huge budget shortfalls from ballooning payrolls and unfunded pension liabilities, the time may be ripe for change. In New Jersey and Wisconsin, Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker both reined in their state unions’ collective bargaining privileges, and their states are the better for it.

It’s a pretty clear problem with a pretty clear solution. Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be government employees. But if they do, please, keep ‘em union-free.