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Travis Rowley: Outlaw Government Unions

Saturday, April 07, 2012


Offering collective bargaining privileges to Rhode Island’s public employees was always an imprudent idea. And they should be rescinded immediately.

This is a simple conclusion to reach when one considers the nature and purpose of a union. That is, when a group of workers view themselves as having collective leverage over their employer, and find it in their best interest to threaten him with a work stoppage unless their demands are met – most commonly, a greater share of company profits.

When it comes to public employees, however, it is critical to note that there are no profits to share in. In regards to government employees, there is only the opportunity to fight for more tax dollars. As George Will reminded us in 2010, “They are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself for ever-larger portions of wealth extracted by the taxing power from the private sector. Increasingly, government workers are the electoral base of the party of government.”

Furthermore, unlike business owners and entrepreneurs, government officials are rarely concerned or skilled at making government (the business) more efficient – keeping costs low while increasing the quality of the product. Whether it’s because they view taxpayers as a continuous stream of reliable funds, or because they don’t plan on being in office when the consequences for their poor fiscal decisions finally arrive, the inclination to push back on overreaching labor activists is often absent within the government sector.

In the face of this analysis, Democrats still considered it wise to empower government bureaucracies with a higher ability to oppress Rhode Island taxpayers, introducing legislation in 1966 that would afford public employees the right to collectively bargain. Republican Governor John Chafee responded with a letter to the State Senate, outlining his reasons for vetoing the bill. Chafee pointed out the “organizational problems inherent where the machinery designed for private industry is imposed on State employees.” Chafee explained, “Since wages, hours and practically all working conditions are now established by laws enacted by the General Assembly…or regulations,” collective bargaining for state employees will “inevitably” lead to “bad relationships between…employees and the State.” And this would result in “the public [being] the loser.”

Who’s the Boss?

Another primary issue with public unions is that there is no identifiable “management” with whom they can bargain with. The employer is, in fact, the whole of the citizenry.

Therefore, elected bodies of diverse-minded government officials are ultimately charged with “negotiating” with the unions – even while thousands of citizens may be at odds with their elected representatives, and may have never voted for them in the first place.

Meanwhile, thousands of government employees transform into political organisms, working tirelessly to elect individuals who are sympathetic to their interests.

Top union leaders and liberal icons, such as former president of the AFL-CIO George Meany, used to understand these basic realities. In 1955 Meany said, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Meany’s declaration became relevant last week when Warwick resident Roger Durand testified on Capitol TV ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfZfSFkl6x0 ), and described what he perceived to be an ill-advised agreement from six years ago between Mayor Scott Avedisian and the firefighters’ union – an agreement that now requires the city to put aside $20 million, when the maximum annual tax increase allowed in Warwick is only $8 million per year.

Regarding the $12 million shortfall, Mr. Durand asked, “So now, as a taxpayer, I should be responsible for that?”

Labor leaders respond affirmatively to Durand’s question. As everyone should now understand, this is the unions’ position when it comes to their unsustainable contracts: “A promise made should be a promise kept.”

They have a contract. Mess with it, and they’ll sue. Sue the taxpayers, that is.

John Chafee was right. The public would be the loser.

Ignoring the Warnings

Labor leaders of the past also understood that the purpose of American government is to serve the People. Seeking leverage over the citizens’ government through the threat of a strike was thought by Franklin D. Roosevelt to be “unthinkable and intolerable.” “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the government,” stressed Roosevelt. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” Years later Ronald Reagan would go on to say, “Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services, which are government’s reason for being.”

Public servants. Not public workers. A “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Not a government “for the government bureaucracy.”

Yet, in 1966, that’s precisely what Rhode Island established for itself, a situation in which the government would begin to serve itself – government employees armed with the ability to organize against the taxpayers.

In 1959 the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO offered this advice: "In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress – a right available to every citizen."

Seven years later, Rhode Island Democrats granted collective bargaining privileges to government workers.

About twenty years later, it began to circulate that the state’s financial stability was in jeopardy.

About twenty years after that, the City of Central Falls collapsed and became emblematic of a moribund state that was marked by an oppressive tax structure, an abysmal business climate, and a corrupt coalition of Democrats and union activists entirely opposed to any meaningful reform.

And the Providence Journal was editorializing, “The cost of government, notably in benefits for public employees…has risen much faster than the public’s ability to pay for it. Something has to give.”

This is What Liberty Looks Like!

Labor leaders actually react to those who object to this suicidal system with a taunt. First, they describe themselves as mere innocent, hard-working political activists. Then they pompously suggest to anyone else who desires political change that favors their interests to simply work as hard as they do.

After all, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Perhaps. But liberty looks like this: A governmental system that safeguards the property of the People by placing checks on its government.

There’s a lot of chatter these days about municipal bankruptcy, a strategy that would free cities and towns from years of poorly crafted labor contracts that are crushing the average citizen. They say that bankruptcy would allow municipalities to have a fresh financial start. If that’s the option that is ultimately chosen, we should ask ourselves what the point is to a new beginning if the plan is to merely set ourselves back on the same path that Democrats sent us down in 1966.

Travis Rowley (TravisRowley.com) is the chairman of the RI Young Republicans and a consultant for the Barry Hinckley Campaign for US Senate.


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