Public Unions and Political Favoritism

Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute has some interesting insight into the history of public unions and political favors that have led to the debate in Wisconsin: Collective Bargaining Doesn’t Work In the Public Sector

As unions played an increasingly important role in the Democratic Party in the 1940s and 1950s, their political value became apparent to elected officials like Sen. Wagner’s son, New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Mayor Wagner jolted the public sector union movement into life when in 1958 he gave city employees the right to collectively bargain, in the process making them valuable political allies in his reelection bid and igniting a series of similar moves by other politicians in cities and states across America.

What happened next confirmed the fears of many critics. The 1960s were a time of government strikes, including several dozen in September of 1966 by teachers that shut down school systems in some of our largest cities. When cities and states responded with laws outlawing strikes among government workers, unions developed a new strategy, concentrating their firepower in state capitals and city halls to elect leaders sympathetic to their cause. Over time they’ve become the biggest players in places like Sacramento, Albany and Madison, and such a permanent presence that every effort at reform is eventually undermined.

In the late 1970s, for instance, New York State enacted changes to its pension system for state and local workers after rich employee perks played a role in New York City’s near bankruptcy. But over time public workers clawed back their benefits so that today, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his election campaign, public pensions are unsustainable in the Empire State. In New York City alone pension contributions in one decade have gone from $1.5 billion annually to $7 billion, straining the city’s budget.

California enacted pension reforms in 1991 which limited the impact of pensions on the state budget. But in 1999, Gov. Gray Davis and the state’s Democratically controlled legislature wiped out those reforms, retroactively putting everyone who had joined the state’s workforce in the 1990s into a new, richer system so that today California has unfunded pension liabilities ranging from $200 billion to $500 billion.

That’s become a strategy of public worker unions. They fight reforms, but if they lose they wait ’till they can elect a new set of more sympathetic legislators and then reclaim their gains.

Yesterday, the AP (via MPR) had a very telling comment in regards to the debate in Madison that, in my opinion, perfectly explains all the howling:

Democratic and union leaders say the attack on collective bargaining is an attempt to undermine the unions and weaken the Democratic Party base.

Personally, I think it speaks volumes when the two parties involved in a quid pro quo are quite open about the nature of their relationship. Your tax dollars at work, America.

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