July 20, 2007 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Required Unions and the Collective Good

Quick quiz: What's the purpose of the "Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act"? It recently passed the House by a large margin.

With a title like that, one would expect that the bill has something to do with facilitating cooperation between public safety workers and their employers. This being Congress, though, the bill naturally does something completely different. It requires all state and local governments to recognize public sector unions as the exclusive representative of their police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Most states and local governments already do this, and large majorities of policemen and firefighters are already covered by union collective bargaining agreements. However, a minority of states and localities negotiate contracts individually with their public safety employees. The act would force them to collectively negotiate with a union instead.

Yet widespread unionization would do little to improve employer-employee cooperation. The collective bargaining framework pits employers and employees against each other. Sometimes it leads to greater cooperation, but other times it creates conflict and strife.

The transit-worker strike that paralyzed New York City during Christmas 2005 and the frequent walkouts staged by Detroit public school teachers -- both illegal -- demonstrate this. Even unions representing extremely well paid government workers fight continuously for even more. The FAA Controllers union, for example, is bitterly protesting a contract that does not give its members the $200,000 a year they wanted.

Sometimes collective bargaining improves management-labor relations. Sometimes it does the opposite. That's why states and local governments ought to have the freedom to determine which case applies to them. Yet the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act would impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy everywhere. States would have to collectively bargain with public safety workers, regardless of whether collective or individual negotiations would actually create more cooperation in the workplace.

The act also would affect states and localities that currently bargain collectively with policemen and firefighters, but not over everything. Under the act, states and local governments would have to bargain collectively over not just wages and hours, but also other "terms and conditions of employment."

Many union-friendly states keep some subjects off the bargaining table for a good reason. Union interests do not always align with the public good, so unions are told some subjects are off limits.

Michigan law, for example, specifies that police officers may be promoted only the basis of merit. Wisconsin extends this restriction to most state employees. Unions strongly support seniority systems and insist on them in negotiations, but police officers and other public safety employees ought to earn their raises. This keeps everyone working harder to protect the public, and ensures the best officers will fill the most sensitive positions. As a result, many states and local governments tell government unions that, in the interest of public safety, the merit promotion system is not up for negotiation.

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act forces states to put almost everything on the bargaining table. States would have only the option of ruling the size of pension benefits and right-to-work provisions out of bounds. Everything else would be up for grabs. This would not increase workplace harmony, but it would mean that many states would soon find their public safety employees saddled with union seniority systems.

Washington doesn't know what should and shouldn't be negotiated by each state and locality, or what best suits local needs. Congress certainly should not decide that local governments must negotiate everything.

Ironically, Congress gives itself the same flexibility that this act would deny states and local governments. Recognizing that unions are sometimes not in the public interest, Congress prevents many federal public safety employees from unionizing. Employees at the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service may not, by federal law, bargain collectively.

In some states and for some local governments collective bargaining makes sense. In others collective bargaining just creates more tension and does nothing to improve public safety or cooperation. Congress should let voters in individual communities make the choice about what works best for them.

James Sherk is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

First appeared in washingtonpost.com