Well, There’s Unions, And Then There’s Unions


When John Hickenlooper was running for Governor, he touted his business experience, and sold himself as a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative, pro-business candidate.  If true, even in an environment favorable to Republicans, with a viable candidate, that package is an appealing one.  Unfortunately, as many of us predicted, it’s not true.

Governor-Elect Hickenlooper’s choice of political-labor activist Ellen Golombek to head the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment is the latest example.  It’s not merely that Ms. Golombek runs the labor arm of  the Colorado Democracy Alliance, the so-called Progressives’ political machine.  It’s that she has a long history with the SEIU, the most political of labor unions, and one closely associated with public employees unions. By doing so, Hicklenlooper has put himself on the wrong side of the public on one of the central issues of state governance facing us today.

Remember that Gov. Ritter essentially unionized state workers, who started getting AFSCME cards in the mail, whether or not they had requested them.  There was little interest on the part of state workers in actually joining AFSCME, though.  I think we can count on Golombek using her position to actively promote union membership among state employees.  While Colorado WINS apparently stopped tweeting and posting to its website, that may have been in preparation for exactly such an appointment.

It’s those unions, and their ability, through the electoral process (and in Colorado, through ballot measures), to help write their work rules and select the people they negotiate with, who are largely responsible for the impending fiscal crises in California, New York, and Illinois, with other states soon to follow.  Estimates are that across the country, public pensions are $3,000,000,000,000 in the hole, and the same unions that negotiated these sweetheart deals are now crying foul when anyone tries to rein them in.  Of course, what’s unfair is not attempts to treat the public fisc responsibly, but the fact that many of us will never be able to retire because of the taxes collected to pay for the 2nd-half-of-life scholarships for bureaucrats who put in 25 years, largely telling us how to run our homes and businesses.

The presence of large pots of government-controlled money has its dangers, as well.  Subject to politicization, as in the California pension plan, the management of these portfolios can start investing more in the interests of their political patrons than in the interest of the beneficiaries and taxpayers.

Public pensions are, of course, only one manifestation of the problem of public unions.  Work slowdowns, like the one that likely took place during the recent New York snowstorm, are effective because of work rules the unions have negotiated making it virtually impossible to fire anyone for incompetence or performance.  This avoids the PATCO response, where the air traffic controllers struck in open defiance of the law.  The moral indignation of New Jersey teachers when asked to contribute even small amounts to their own health insurance or retirement also shows the sense of entitlement that the culture of public unions engenders.

Fortunately, people are starting to notice, even unions.

William McGurn notes this in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

These days the two types of worker inhabit two very different worlds. In the private sector, union workers increasingly pay for more of their own health care, and they have defined contribution pension plans such as 401(k)s. In this they have something fundamental in common even with the fat cats on Wall Street: Both need their companies to succeed.

By contrast, government unions use their political clout to elect those who set their pay: the politicians. In exchange, these unions are rewarded with contracts whose pension and health-care provisions now threaten many municipalities and states with bankruptcy. In response to the crisis, government unions demand more and higher taxes. Which of course makes people who have money less inclined to look to those states to make the investments that create jobs for, say, iron workers, electricians and construction workers.

Private sector unions have been most effective when they have confined themselves to collective bargaining for wages, hours, and working conditions.  Public sector unions, almost by definition, see their role as part of a larger, leftist political program that is ultimately at odds with the healthy economy that private workers need.  Given that private unions have, for the most part, shriveled into irrelevance, the alliance with public sector unions seems to benefit private unions mostly through laws allowing them to strongarm workers into unionize against the wishes of the majority.  The 2010 election results will, however, put most of those legislative efforts on hold, possibly forcing the private sector unions to re-examine the value of this alliance.

Make no mistake.  Private-sector unions will continue to work to elect Democrats, and will continue to put boots on the ground in urban and suburban elections to make sure that happens.  But on specific issues, particularly public-sector pensions and benefits, it’s possible that governing Republicans can make allies of them in their efforts to rein in spending, and that private sector unions can put pressure on Democrats to go along, forcing officeholders to choose between factions in their coalition.