Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting Wisconsin in Context: Civil Service Systems

Discussing Wisconsin Governor Walker’s efforts to restrict collective bargaining by state employees, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Sixty-two percent of Americans polled oppose efforts to strip government workers of collective-bargaining rights.” Many of these people might have answered the pollsters differently if they had been aware of the civil service systems protecting most government workers.

A major argument for unionizing private workers is that they otherwise face arbitrary treatment by their employers. Collective bargaining contracts commonly create procedures for handling workers’ grievances against such treatment, often including binding arbitration.

Long before collective bargaining, however, most government workers were already well-protected from high-handed treatment. Our federal and state governments had enacted merit civil service systems providing excellent security against arbitrary dismissals and other mistreatment.

Before 1883, government employment was very insecure. When the White House changed hands, many workers were fired to make room for supporters of the new administration. This was known as the “spoils system.”

The assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office-seeker prompted the 1883 Pendleton Act. Later, state governments also created merit civil service systems.

In Oregon, civil service reform responded to strings attached to grants funding welfare programs during the Depression. The new federally-funded programs were administered by state agencies. But Congress did not want this money to bolster state spoils systems; hence the “strings” requiring the states to establish merit systems.

Governor Walker’s critics claim that his reforms will leave public workers in a much worse position than private workers. But they overlook the fact that these workers will still be protected by Wisconsin’s civil service system.

In fact, federal and state civil servants have been protected so well that it is sometimes impossible or too expensive to fire even disastrously incompetent workers. J. Edgar Hoover used to deal with this problem by relocating FBI agents who had messed up to Butte, Montana, where they could do no harm. Other federal agencies have likewise established “turkey farms,” as they are known in the trade, offices where such people are warehoused until they can retire. Presumably state governments have turkey farms of their own.

Of course most government employees are competent, hard-working, and doing important work. But even someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was very sympathetic to such workers, drew the line at collective bargaining.

On August 16, 1937, Roosevelt wrote to leaders of the National Federation of Federal Employees. He noted that “All Government employees should realize that . . . collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

Roosevelt, strong supporter of private collective bargaining, went on: “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. . . . . . It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."

Although Roosevelt here spoke of federal employees, there is no reason to suppose he felt differently about state workers.

Walker’s critics need to rethink their position. Seen in the context of merit civil service systems, ending collective bargaining would not subject government workers to high-handed treatment. And elected officials do have a history of offering unions magnificent future benefits (which future leaders will have to figure out how to pay for) to induce them to accept lower current salaries. Ending such bargaining—especially as to fringe benefits---may help avoid future financial catastrophes.

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