Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Time to end public sector collective bargaining

Without taking sides with the teachers or with the school board,   we need to think about the legal framework within which the current situation in Portland has developed.    Decades of experience suggest that public sector collective bargaining is a bad idea and that legislation authorizing it should be repealed.

The National Labor Relations Act authorized collective bargaining only with private employers.  The legislation  presumed an inequality of bargaining power between individual workers and big corporations; by joining forces behind a sole bargaining agent, workers would get better treatment.  Franklin D. Roosevelt,  the father of American labor law,  had opposed extending the NLRA to cover government employees.  He thought that a strike against a democratic government would be an abomination. 

Unlike private sector workers,  non-unionized government employees already enjoyed substantial protection against high-handed treatment thanks to civil service laws.  And, like all citizens,  they voted, making up a substantial bloc that elected official preferred not to offend.

Decades later,  though,  collective bargaining for state employees and then federal workers was authorized.   After several more decades,  situations brought about by public sector unionization do not make a pretty picture.

Unions negotiating with private employers have no interest in getting such a good deal that it bankrupts an employer or drives it to outsource production to China.  Public sector unions have had less reason to restrain their demands. 

The new laws allowed unions to pressure officials  to accept contracts government could not afford over the long run.  Rather than raising wages,  officials agreed to generous pensions for future retirees but failed to fund them.  Recent  bankruptcies of cities starting with Vallejo,  California (where I graduated from high school in 1957) and culminating with the spectacular bankruptcy of Detroit are largely due to unwise contracts with employee unions .

Strikes by government workers often have a more dramatic impact on daily life than strikes against private employers.  Strikes by subway workers or bus drivers can tie up a whole city.  Strikes by police or fire fighters can produce disasters.  As Portland residents are well-aware,  a strike by teachers can cause horrible problems for working parents.  This, of course, is why officials have so often knuckled under to union demands in the past, and will probably continue to do in the future unless we change the legal order they must work within.

Occasionally officials have dug in their heels.  When public school teachers in the Crestwood School District in Michigan struck in 1975,  the school board responded to the strike by firing all the teachers and replacing them.  This was upheld by the courts,  but caused lingering hard feelings between different segments of the community.  In the following decade President Reagan fired striking PATCO members when the air controllers declared an illegal strike.   

But we cannot count on elected officials to act more courageously than most of their predecessors.  Their basic interest inclines them to accept contracts postponing the unpleasantness so that someone else has to deal with it.

Public sector bargaining was a well-intended experiment that has produced bad results. 
Although it will be controversial,  we  should repeal all legislation allowing public employees to unionize and strike.  In the past Oregon has led the nation in progressive legislation promoting the welfare of the general public;  we now have an opportunity to continue in this grand tradition. 

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