Don’t Like Public Employee Unions? Here’s the Best Way to Rein Them In

Want to control public sector unions? Fine: increase the power of private sector unions.

This has really got to be chutzpah for the ages.  Robert Barro develops rational expectations economics, which fails to predict anything and helps to create a global financial crisis.  Then, ignoring his own role in the matter, he says that it will have the “positive consequence” of undermining public employee unions, who did absolutely nothing to cause the crisis.  The inability to feel shame has long been an asset in politics; now, apparently, it is an asset among Chicago-school economists as well.

In any event, if you really concerned that public employee unions will demand too much of the public fisc — a fear that in light of, say, Texas’ fiscal troubles, seems overdone at best — then there may be a better way to do it: increase the power of unions.  Yes, you heard that right.

Suppose that teachers’ unions resist reform and thereby help degrade the quality of childrens’ education, a not-unreasonable scenario.  The problem is often that parents are unorganized and cannot compete.  But were they organized into unions, it is the members of those unions who would be in a position to complain and sit on recalcitrant teachers’ organizations.  “Hey, buddy, those are my members’ kids that you are screwing here.” 

Is this scenario realistic?  I don’t know.  My understanding is that it works something like this in Germany, although my knowledge is very much out of date on the question.  It would depend here upon the creation of the sorts of peak institutions that have gone out of fashion in American political economy since the 1970’s.  Even then, it’s possible that labor leaders would simply be focused on their own parochial issues and oblivious to larger ones.  But this is far from necessarily true: with all of their flaws, public sector unions have fought for a lot of progressive legislation that does not necessarily affect their bottom line.  The ACA was a good example.

At the very least, it’s certainly just as realistic as the confident assertions of right-wing pundits that public sector unions are busting budgets (which they are not) or get their members gold-plated salaries and benefits (which they do not).  By the standards of current political discourse, we might as well consider it proved.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

16 thoughts on “Don’t Like Public Employee Unions? Here’s the Best Way to Rein Them In”

  1. I thought I read somewhere that top level public employees are badly underpaid relative to the private sector, and semi and low-skill positions are “overpaid.”

    This certainly accords with experience. At one point I don’t think people with unskilled public sector jobs were paid more than the private sector, but in the private sector wages at the bottom have been hammered down.

  2. Uh, Jonathan, there is a parents’ union. It is called the PTA. Teachers hate it like poison, for the same reason most management hates unions. (I know some people who work for unions, and the unions hate their unionized employees every bit as much as other management.) Nobody likes accountability, most especially management. Some people manage to avoid accountability, if they can get a friendly legal regime like Delaware law or right-to-work. The results are not impressive.

  3. @ Ebenezer Scrooge — I wouldn’t call the PTA a parents’ UNION: I’d call it a volunteer organization. At least in my experience, it has nowhere near the clout that real political organizations have. This is often the problem with education politics: teachers’ unions are organized, but other interests are not, particularly here in California, where Prop 13 means that property tax increases are off the table and thus not a political issue. I agree with you 100% on accountability.

  4. We could also suppose that teachers’ unions resist reform and thereby help prevent the degradation of the quality of childrens’ education. This is also not an unreasonable scenario, since most of the favored reforms are a corporate nonsense covering for opposition to unions and public schools. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t useful reforms to be had, but those are also less likely to lead to opposition from unions).

    Also, it strikes me that the claim that “teachers’ unions are organized, but other interests are not” is simply false. The forces of corporate reform are part of a large web of well funded and connected organizations both within government and without. If one only looks at parents and teachers, the point holds, and that is not unimportant. But it is by no means the whole game.

  5. I don’t think you can really say that it works like that in Germany — both the situation of unions and the educational system are just completely different over there, to the point of not being comparable.

    First, until reunification, German teachers had civil servant (Beamte) status. That meant that while they had quite a few perks, they also weren’t allowed to strike (a peculiar exception to what is otherwise a constitutional right in Germany).

    After reunification, German teachers in East Germany were primarily hired as regular employees, with all the attendant rights. However, unionization in Germany is relatively low these days — around 16% of the working population or so. That has less to do with unions being weak (the right to unionize is guaranteed under both the German constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights and is well-protected by the German courts), but with labor law being very employee-friendly in Germany; as a result, employees often see little need to participate in unions.

    There is of course, the Elternrat or Elternkommittee (Parent Council or Parent Committee), which generally plays a strong role in German schools. This is not a union, though. The details vary by state, from it having a purely advisory to participating in the school’s organizational decision making. When making analogies to labor law, they are more similar to European-style works councils than trade unions, especially as a means of communication between parents and teachers (or employees and employers for works councils). Unlike the PTA, they exist because state laws require them (in some cases, state constitutions).

    (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually lived in Germany in a long time, and back then I was a student, not a parent, so I may be mistaken on some details.)

    On a more general note, I don’t think much of the claim that strong public employee unions cause a degradation of the quality of education. There are plenty of countries with both strong unions and high quality education; enough to falsify at least a very simplistic version of that hypothesis. The difference seems to be that in those countries being a teacher is a highly desirable job, because it is well-paid, offers high status, or both. Conversely, where teaching is a low-status, underpaid vocation, you’ll obviously see a lot more poor teachers. In the end, I think this may be more of a “you get what you pay for” than a union thing; unions are just left with the blame because of the general reputation of unions in the United States.

  6. David Kain essentially said it. If where my district is at is any indication of where it is headed (more time wasted chasing bad data, ignorant top-down directives), then the 2020’s will be spent cleaning up after the 10’s. I’m looking forward to my golden years teaching being filled with optimism as I watch flowers growing up through the rubble, unlike the elders of today who can’t wait to be done with the whole damned system and it’s petulant, ivory tower wannabes in tight-collared shirts who’d never last a second in a real under-performing classroom.

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    “Robert Barro is an economist? I thought he was a Republican.”

    Same thing; at least the economics profession has abandoned all pretense
    of ethics and quality. That’s why if I were ever purging the elite econ
    departments, I’d toss the liberals out with the frauds. These people have
    had more job protection than 99% of the American people, and *still* they
    cringe while right-wing colleagues are demonstrably and unabashedly wrong.

    There should have been a Night of the Long Knives in economics after the Crash,
    and doubly so since it’s been clear that the Chicago School looked at that, and
    continued on as they had.

  8. 90 percent of most state’s shortfalls could be eliminated by simply releasing people that have not committed violent crimes and are not recidivists. Check out how much money is pure waste in most states in the drug area. Arresting, prosecuting, convicting and sentencing to prison for possession of marijuana is more than is needed to cover shortfalls.

    Tough on crime? The country is run by a bunch of war criminals.

  9. I agree that maybe the teacher-bashing wave has crested. A big waste of time and energy on another fad.

  10. IMO, one vast improvement, on many fronts, would be to require that pension liabilities be fully funded when incurred, and the associated expense be recognized at that time.

    A little more reality about the cost of pensions – public and private – would be enormously helpful. Right now these obligations are obscured, and lend themselves to serious misrepresentation as well as a “kick it down the road” mentality.

  11. (Jonathan): “Robert Barro develops rational expectations economics, which fails to predict anything and helps to create a global financial crisis.
    The rational expectations model predicts that people will learn to anticipate and adapt to regulatory (and monetary policy) regimes. It predicts that the Keynesian modeled relation between fiscal stimlus and employment will break down (as it has).

    The PTA is a NEA front.

  12. (Klein): “Let’s be clear: Whatever fiscal problems Wisconsin is — or is not — facing at the moment, they’re not caused by labor unions. That’s also true for New Jersey, for Ohio and for the other states. There was no sharp rise in collective bargaining in 2006 and 2007, no major reforms of the country’s labor laws, no dramatic change in how unions organize.
    Klein constructs a straw man argument. No one supposes that these financial problems sprang fully formed overnight. They had a long gestation. One way to get at this is to compare State by State private sector growth since the advent of public sector unionization in the ’60’s.

  13. Andrew Coulson notes that K-12 costs have been increasing in districts with collective bargaining and in districts without collective bargaining and concludes: “even if collective bargaining is forbidden to state school employees, the savings will likely be negligible.
    This does not mean that unions did not drive the costs to their present level, however. Organized insiders lobby for larger budgets and a greater expansion of the span of compulsory attendance (what was once 8-14 has become 5-18 in some States). Organized schools provide the dominant model, which puts more efficient methods conceptually out of bounds. Unions lobbied for child labor laws, minimum wage laws, and an increase in the span of compulsory attendance, which put on-the-job training off limits to many children.

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