The Problem With Public Sector Unions—and How to Fix It

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Here's a plan to preserve the ability of government workers to bargain collectively -- one that would prevent the excesses that are destroying some communities' fiscal health.

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A firefighter protests at a rally in Wisconsin. WX Mom/Flickr

With public employee unions suffering high-profile election losses in Wisconsin, San Jose, and San Diego, there is rampant speculation about what comes next. Noah Millman argues that voters and public sector unions have an inherently adversarial relationship. Says Will Wilkinson, writing in The Economist, "measures limiting the power of public-sector unions to organize against taxpayers are controversial, but not as politically dangerous as Democrats would like."

Suffice it to say that we're years away from any stable, widely accepted equilibrium. As Natasha Vargas Cooper put it some months ago in Slake, "A critical tactic in the conservative drive to build a permanent majority in Wisconsin and other Rust Belt states is to bust the unions under the guise of 'emergency' austerity measures. Walker's plan cuts right to the marrow of a labor movement that he, and just about everybody else, thinks is tottering on its heels. If it dies, one of the last major funding sources for Democrats dies, too." It is very thorny to tease out the motivations of partisans on this subject, because it's just a fact that strong public employee unions hurt the electoral chances of Republicans and help to fund and elect Democrats. It's also true that lots of states and localities are going broke due to pension obligations.

Before this post is through, we'll set aside the question of which political party benefits from the rules that govern public employee negotiations, and grapple with what the rules ought to be. But I want to share a story first, for it powerfully shaped my understanding of public sector unions. Prior to becoming a journalist, they weren't ever on my radar. But that changed at my first job. When I started as a newspaper reporter in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the suburban municipality had a population of roughly 128,000 people. It was 2002, a time when firefighters were at the height of their post-9/11 popularity. In the course of my reporting, I got to know several of the guys on the force. Generally speaking, they were a good bunch of people, and I was able to see them at their best, having arranged a 24-hour ride along weeks in advance that happened to occur on the day of the biggest fire that the community had seen in a generation.

To understand the goodwill that these firefighters soon enjoyed, it's helpful to see a map of the city. As shown below, it is in the foothills, and the Southern California housing boom had pushed development right up to the edge of nature and in some cases beyond it. On the day in question, an enormous brush fire had burned throughout the day on the other side of the mountains.  

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Late that night, the wind suddenly shifted. Gusts drove the flames up the back side of the mountains, over the ridge, and down upon the city. The front of the blaze was miles wide. Thousands of homes were threatened. It was the fire for which everyone on the force had trained for years. Residents gathered at shelters in the southern part of the city, mesmerized by the spectacle. I was able to drive around in the evacuation zone. The smoke was suffocating. On the eastern edge of the city, old eucalyptus wind-rows would catch fire and the trees would explode from all the oil in the leaves. In the north, the firefighters executed what they called a bump and run strategy: race north on the streets that dead-ended in wilderness; let the flames burn to the edge of the houses, consuming all fuel; put them out; disconnect the hoses, race down the hill; go a few blocks over; race back up a different street to the edge of the wilderness, and repeat. The tops of those streets were as intense an environment as I'd ever seen. The heat was intense, the sky dark grey with flashes of apocalyptic orange, and the fire creating its own hellish wind. And the vast majority, if not all, of the firefighters were ready to risk their lives to save a life.

The firefighters' union in Rancho Cucamonga probably had a salutary effect on the force's performance. Its political clout counterbalanced the building interests that wielded a lot of influence in the city, leading to building codes that demanded more fire safety measures than would've been included otherwise. High salaries and generous benefits attracted high quality employees. And the union was always pushing for more stations, engine companies, and firefighters. It also looked out for the safety of the firefighters. The job is inherently dangerous, but protocol, equipment and training all have an impact on how many men are injured or killed while on duty. Finally, the compensation package negotiated by the union permitted many of the firefighters to live in the city where they worked, despite the fact that it was relatively expensive.

Over the next couple years, I nevertheless came to see the several downsides of the union's influence. Contract negotiations were held in private, with the City Council representing Rancho Cucamonga residents and union reps representing the firefighters. This posed a structural problem, for the interests of elected officials weren't particularly aligned with the public, whereas the union negotiators had a personal stake in whatever compensation package was adopted. To be more specific, if a City Council member behaved in a fiscally irresponsible manner, it wouldn't matter for at least a few years, by which time ambitious pols would have moved on to a county post or the state legislature. And lavish compensation packages could easily be obscured by combining what appeared to be a reasonable salary, the only number the public was likely to hear, with exorbitant pay for overtime or over the top fringe benefits.

But if a City Council member crossed the fire union? The consequences were immediate. As soon as the next election rolled around, they'd face a well-financed challenger. On his campaign mailers, he'd be photographed flanked by handsome firefighters. On weekends, friendly guys in fire-coats would go door to door on behalf of their would be champion. "We're very concerned that Councilman X is endangering public safety by refusing to do Y," they might say. Or else, "Challenger Z is a crucial ally in our effort to make this city safer." The incentives were clear.

The union also negotiated contracts that protected firefighters who misbehaved, even in egregious ways. The frat-house atmosphere common in firehouses was thus more pronounced than was ideal. And the weakest links on the force were weaker than they would've otherwise been, which matters, considering that these guys daily speed down busy streets, and regularly face situations where marginal differences in skill and judgment are the difference between life and death.

What I saw in Rancho Cucamonga helped me to understand, long before most people, what was happening in California generally. Under Gray Davis, the Democratic governor who was recalled by voters, the state's public safety employees got a pension deal that would make anyone drool: they could retire at age 55 and earn 90 percent of their final salary every year for life. That change put pressure on every municipality in the state to adopt the same deal for its police and firefighters. During the dot-com boom, state pension funds were flying high and officials made commitments in contract negotiations that were sustainable only if the boom lasted forever. For a while, cities got away with giving employees sweetheart pension deals, even as the payments they owed the state pension fund stayed low, for the fund was making money in the stock market.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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