Saturday, January 23, 2010

The problem with public employee collective bargaining

I have just sent the following letter to the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Oregon. I think it raises questions which may be of general interest, and refers to a Wall Street Journal article and new book that may also be interesting to many readers.

To: Cascade Policy Institute (selected people)

This morning's Wall Street Journal featured an article by the author of a new book: , Steven Greenhut. The article is "Public Employee Unions are Sinking California." The book is Plunder: How public employee unions are raiding treasuries, controlling our lives and bankrupting the nation. Read the article at [here].

I have long been pretty sure that Oregon schools were fully operational and fully staffed during the (I hope "the"!) Depression, unlike the recent times when days and staffing were cut during hard times. It seems to me (see op-ed article, below) that an important difference between then and now is that we now have public employee unions, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to save the needed money by cutting compensation while retaining all employees.

But I wonder: Has anybody done research on the extent to which teacher and other state employee compensation was reduced during the Depression? I know from my own family history that my father was earning $100 a month on a 9 month basis teaching high school over in Adrian, Oregon when I was born, which would equate to $13,804 a year according to the price level calculator at the Federal Reserve Bank. And he was considered fortunate to have a job.

Are there still records showing public employee compensation for particular people, including teachers, back that far? It seems to me that this might be a worthwhile research project for your staff or one of your associates.


Paul deLespinasse, Ph.D.
Corvallis, Oregon

Copyright © 2004 by Paul deLespinasse. November 2004. This ran in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.


The increasing rancor [ “Contract dispute turns ugly”, GT, November 10] in negotiations between local teachers and the Board of Education is very unfortunate.

Why has school finance become a can of worms? Even during the hard days of the Depression, Oregon schools were fully staffed and ran full-length years. What has changed?

Democratic government is inherently experimental. Some policies may sound attractive but turn out to have unanticipated problems. It is now clear that Oregonians made a terrible mistake several decades ago when we decided to allow teachers and other government employees to engage in collective bargaining.

The argument for collective bargaining with private employers is that it strengthens the hands of workers who otherwise might be exploited by high-handed and greedy corporations. This argument does not apply to government workers because the greater danger is that they will be overpaid, not that they will be underpaid.

Teachers and other government employees are substantial parts of the electorate in every political subdivision in the United States. Elections are often very close. No official wants to alienate a voting bloc that could determine whether he or she will be re-elected. Nor are the officials who would decide, in the absence of collective bargaining, what teacher and civil servant salaries would be, paying these people out of their own pocket. It is easier to be “liberal” with other people’s money.

If government were to set salaries too low it would be unable to attract sufficient numbers of qualified people to work for it, and would be forced to pay more. There is no similar mechanism that can force a correction when salaries are too high.

In the private sector union demands are moderated by competition, which can destroy a corporation paying its workers too much. We thus see pilots’ unions agreeing to major salary cuts from United Airlines, Delta, etc., because if their employer disappears, so do their jobs. Private sector union demands are also sometimes moderated by the danger that work will be outsourced to other countries.

The work performed by government employees is harder to outsource and not generally subject to competition. It is easy to understand why public employee unions are outraged by privatization and absolutely panicked by the concept of vouchers allowing parents to send their children to private schools (competitors!) with money provided by taxpayers. It is not so clear that it is in the interest of the general public to accommodate the unions in this matter.

Public officials have a duty to drive the best possible bargain on taxpayers’ behalf when setting the salaries and fringe benefits of teachers and other people doing the public’s work. They need flexibility to make changes when economic conditions change. Collective bargaining prevents our representatives from doing either of these things, and we should therefore give serious consideration to eliminating collective bargaining for government employees.

Of course it won’t be easy. But most worthwhile reforms aren’t easy. Oregon has often lead the United States in recognizing the need for reform, and perhaps the time has again come for us to march at the front of the line.
Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. He can be reached at

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