Scott Walker wants to end federal unions. It’s about time we talk about this

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks Steve Small in Las Vegas, Nevada. Steve Marcus | Las Vegas Sun via Reuters

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks with Steve Small in Las Vegas, Nevada. Steve Marcus | Las Vegas Sun via Reuters

His campaign for president has thus far been a train wreck, but I’m certainly with Gov. Scott Walker on his most recent proposal.

Walker is renewing the fight that made him a presidential contender in the first place: labor reform.

The Walker proposal is unique in that it is bold, aggressive, and takes on the question of labor relations in a way we have not seen done by a candidate for national office.

The rather hokey-sounding but ultimately substantive “Power to the People” plan has, basically, four parts, including a national right to work law, an end to the National Labor Relations Board, and an end to special interest giveaways on major federal projects.

But the one part I wish to examine more fully is an end to federal public employee unions.

Most people think of “unions” as a single, monolithically identifiable thing. But in reality there are two different types of unions: Private-sector unions and public-sector unions.

Private-sector unions operate within the structure of American companies and the private sector.

There is something fundamentally different about a public employee union, namely the ability to create a closed loop of political influence, that dramatically imbalances the relationship between union and “management.”

It might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Such a system pollutes what can be a very healthy adversarial relationship between worker and management, and stacks the deck in favor of one side of the table.

One of the biggest mistakes the government ever made was allowing government employees to unionize.

The United States did not always allow federal (or state) employees to unionize. In fact, it was an executive order signed by President Kennedy in 1962 that opened the door for unions’ creation at the federal level.

That executive order later would serve as a model for public-sector unionism for state and municipal employees as well. In the next two decades, more than 20 states legalized collective bargaining in the public sector, swelling the membership of groups like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

So it is, historically speaking, a somewhat recent phenomenon. And it was an unwise decision.

That “closed loop” has produced a destructive system that has led directly to the growth of government, government employees, and budget-busting liabilities. Through their electoral advocacy, public employee unions have been able to guarantee that “management” — the representatives of the people — would take their side, or even advocate for the union from within labor negotiations.

This is an incredibly unhealthy system. The result has been the growth of tens of millions of new government jobs and a fundamental recalibration of the relationship between public and private work.

In the past, government work paid less than comparable employment in the private sector, which was an important factor in channeling people into the private economy. Now, government workers typically earn more and have dramatically more generous benefits packages and pension plans, paid for by the taxpayers.

In the private sector, the only way a union can flourish and deliver exponentially increasing benefits to the workers it represents is when a company has the ability to raise prices above a competitive level. This is a market reaction that helps set realistic value on labor and contributes to the health of negotiations between management and unions.

In the public sector, however, the federal government, states and localities have infinite authority and ability to increase revenue by raising prices (in this example, taxes). Because of that, the infinite growth of unionization benefits can continue in perpetuity, creating fiscal black holes in government budgets.

This is why the great liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt said of government unions, “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. …The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”

In Wisconsin, Walker was elected, survived a recall, and was then re-elected on this very issue. The question of the outsized, inappropriate power of public employee unions drove his campaigns, his agenda and his success.

It is long since time someone talked about the need to take a step back and re-evaluate whether public employee unions should exist at all.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.