Public-Sector Union Fixes for the States

As states begin their new legislative sessions, lawmakers have many opportunities ensure that government works toward the benefit of the public, not the benefit of special interests like government-employee unions.

While labor law is not usually a top concern for the average citizen, it is key to controlling wasteful spending. In many states, government-employee unions — which are private parties — benefit immensely at taxpayer expense. Below are a few modest reforms that state legislatures should consider this year to ensure tax dollars are well spent.

Greater transparency is the first step toward making government more accountable to the public. While every state has some kind of law requiring that the public's business be performed in the open, these laws normally do not apply to collective-bargaining negotiations between the government and unions. In fact, the majority of states have little to no law relating to transparency in public-sector collective-bargaining sessions, according to a recent Goldwater Institute report.

As a result, most government collective-bargaining agreements are finalized in closed-door meetings. Taxpayers and the media should be able to attend collective-bargaining negotiations to ensure that the public's interest is being represented.

Moreover, open government is a political winner. For instance, last year, a Colorado ballot measure that proposed to open collective-bargaining negotiations at public schools passed with 70 percent of the vote. Other states should follow the Centennial State's lead.

Opening public-sector collective-bargaining negotiations to the public would bring attention to the wasteful provisions that unions frequently win, some of which should be banned outright. One such provision is union release time, during which public employees perform union business — like contract negotiations, lobbying, attending union meetings, and defending members at disciplinary hearings — while on the clock at taxpayer expense.

Release time is no more than a taxpayer-funded subsidy to government unions, with taxpayers receiving nothing in return. For example, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation surveyed a number of state and local agencies and municipalities and found that, between 2006 and 2011, union release time cost New Jersey taxpayers more than $30 million. It also found that in a "recent one-year period, a limited survey found 88 government employees on full-time union leave at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $7 million." State lawmakers should pass legislation to end this abusive practice.

Automatic dues deduction is another provision that uses public resources to the exclusive benefit of government unions. Most state and local governments allow contract arrangements in which public employers collect dues payments — including political contributions — directly from employees' paychecks. Legislators should require unions to use their own resources to collect dues and political payments from their members.

Finally, state labor laws should require unions to stand for reelection every few years. The vast majority of public employees never had the chance to vote for the union that represents them, according to research by the Heritage Foundation. In general, once a government union organizes a public employer, it remains the exclusive representative of the workforce in perpetuity.

For example, in 1974 Florida enacted a law allowing collective bargaining in the public sector. "By 1975 the state's 10 largest school districts had unionized," notes Heritage analyst James Sherk. "Just 1 percent of current teachers were on the job in 1975. Fully 99 percent of the teachers in Florida's largest school districts had no choice about being represented by their union."

Only one state, Wisconsin, now requires union-recertification elections, as result of Governor Scott Walker's labor reforms. This newfound worker choice has been well-received by public employees in the Badger state. In 2013, the first year Wisconsin held union-recertification elections, 16,977 public employees voted against union representation, which amounted to government workers rejecting 81 unions.

Lawmakers in other states can adopt similar measures to protect worker choice. Regular elections would ensure the majority of union workers are represented by the union of their choice.

Freedom of association is a basic building block of democracy. State lawmakers owe it to their constituents to enact laws that provide public employees worker choice and ensure that the tax dollars financing public employment are well spent.