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July 2, 2010

Another Taxpayer Handout to Organized Labor

By

Get ready for Organized Labor's biggest congressional handout yet.

It would come via a piece of legislation called the "Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act." Attached, ridiculously enough, to a spending bill that provides war funding for the troops, it will soon hit the House floor for a vote.

From the name, you'd think that the act improved public safety. Wrong.

In fact, it overrides state laws to boost union membership - at taxpayer expense.

The act would require all states to allow police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel to collectively bargain with taxpayers. If they don't create their own system, the federal government will impose one on them.

The union movement sees the act as a first step to getting the power to organize every government employee. As Anna Burger, head of the Change to Win union federation, put it, the union movement wants to "build off the police and firefighters real chance to gain a national collective bargaining law, and create a national collective bargaining standard for all public workers."

Why do unions care so much about unionizing the government? Because government is the new face of Organized Labor. Unions used to primarily represent private-sector workers. Not anymore. Competition from non-union firms has put most union shops out of business. Today just one in 14 private sector workers have union cards.

But government agencies stay in business no matter how inefficiently they're run. So when unions organize a DMV branch, those workers stay organized. As a result union membership has grown in government for years. Almost two out of every five government employees belong to a union.

Last year those paths crossed: more union members now work in government than in the private sector.

The union movement's priorities have shifted with their membership.

Unions once fought for higher wages. Now they fight for higher taxes.

New Jersey. Illinois. California. All across America public-sector unions campaign for tax increases. In Oregon they recently outspent businesses 3-to-2 to pass two ballot initiatives raising income and business taxes.

High taxes make perfect sense for government-employee unions - taxes fund the generous benefits of government workers. State employees in Oregon contribute nothing out-of-pocket toward their health care expenses. Many government employees can retire with a full pension at 55.

But these expensive benefits and the high taxes that fund them have wreaked havoc on state economies. The budget crises in California, Illinois and New Jersey didn't happen by chance. Well over half of government employees in those states hold union cards.

About a dozen states have decided not to play this game and do not collectively bargain with government workers. Virginia and North Carolina outlaw it altogether. This has proved a prudent decision. When was the last time you read about the Virginia budget crisis? States without government employee unions have weathered the recession much better than those with them.

The states that have forgone collective bargaining are on the same page as the founders of the labor movement. Early labor leaders thought the idea of organizing government absurd. They viewed the purpose of unions as getting workers their fair share of business profits. As recently as the early 1960s the AFL-CIO publicly called government unions undemocratic. Government employees, they said, shouldn't tell the voters how the government will spend their money. When the union movement changed its mind in the mid-1960s, these states didn't go along.

That leaves several states where unions cannot organize government workers - their new lifeblood. That means fewer members, less dues income, and thus less political clout than if they could. Needless to say, unions want these laws changed. However, despite heavy union lobbying, these states refuse to budge. Bill Ritter, Colorado's Democratic governor, recently vetoed a similar bill after mayors in his state told him they couldn't afford it.

Now the labor movement wants Congress to force these states to collectively bargain no matter what the cost to taxpayers. That's where the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act comes in.

Hold on to your wallet; the Act stands an excellent chance of becoming law. It's an enormously valuable handout to the new government labor movement. Get ready for more unionized government workers demanding that you pay higher taxes.

James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Sacramento Bee

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