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Might the decline of public-sector unions spur the revitalization of the public sector?

One of the longstanding complaints about public-sector unions, a complaint one hears mostly though not exclusively on the right, is that by assiduously serving the interests of their members, they wind up shortchanging the public. This is not out of a desire to fleece taxpayers. Rather, it reflects the fact that while the consumers of public services have an interest in having them delivered cost-effectively, to ensure that taxpayer dollars go as far as possible, those who provide them are at least partly motivated by a desire to be well-compensated, even if that means they’ll be paid more than is strictly necessary to get the job done. When public-sector unions press for more compensation for their members, or for work rules that might make their jobs more congenial, their demands inevitably have public-policy implications.

What is a public employee to do if she, for example, believes that government ought to curb pension and health benefits for workers like herself to ensure that her agency can continue to do its job without triggering cuts in essential services? Until recently, the answer would have depended on the particular state she was working in. If she were in one of the country’s 28 right-to-work states, she would have been under no obligation to support the public-sector union that sought to represent her. In the remaining states, however, she would have been subject to mandatory union fees, even if she chose to reject membership in her designated union. But just last month, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court brought an end to mandatory “agency fees” for public employees who refuse to join a union. This will redound to the benefit of public employees who dissent from organized labor’s agenda—and also workers who are perfectly happy to reap the benefits of collective bargaining, provided they don’t have to foot the bill.

Daniel DiSalvo, author of Government Against Itself, a critique of the power of public-sector unions, welcomed the decision in a recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that it will “rebalance the playing field in states where the power of unions make it impossible for governments to address the rising costs of pensions and retiree health care, which are crowding out other spending.” It is widely expected that union membership will fall considerably in 22 states that had hitherto subjected dissenting public employees to agency fees. If you have to pay your designated union one way or another, whether in the form of union dues or agency fees, the prospect of going out of your way to explicitly reject membership might seem like a chore, especially if it is a ritual you will have to undertake more than once. The end of agency fees will make opting out far more attractive, which could prompt a rush for the exits.

Organized labor has been bracing for this outcome for some time, and liberal activists are warning that the decision will have grave consequences for their causes, as it is far easier to raise funds from large public-sector unions than from small-dollar individual donors. Public-sector unions have played an essential role in financing the left’s political infrastructure, from think tanks to voter-registration efforts to ballot-measure campaigns. Just as importantly, public-sector unions have mobilized their members to great political effect. Prior to Citizens United, unions were only allowed to visit their own members at home. After it, they were free to visit the homes of voters who did not belong to unions, which paved the way for a significant expansion of voter-contact efforts. Those days aren’t over. But public-sector unions might grow more solicitous of their members, offering more direct services to persuade them of the value of continuing to pay their dues. To appeal to public employees who are politically moderate or conservative, they may well choose to focus their political efforts more narrowly, abandoning their role as angel investors in all manner of left-of-center causes. Or perhaps public-employee unions will grow more militant to energize their smaller memberships. We see a hint of this in this year’s wave of teacher strikes in right-to-work states.

Regardless, the waning of public-sector union power will bring to the surface the political diversity among public-sector employees, and this will create new political opportunities. Expect conservatives to place greater emphasis on increasing the autonomy and authority of public employees, all while moving away from the rigid salary schedules championed by public-sector unions. At the same time, increased flexibility could give rise to entirely new forms of public employment.

To illustrate the first possibility, consider one of the central dilemmas in public education. Parents tend to favor smaller class sizes, despite evidence that class-size reduction isn’t always the most cost-effective way to improve learning outcomes. For one, there is a danger that class-size reduction will lead to a reduction in average teacher quality, as the most effective teachers will teach fewer students and new entrants into the profession won’t always have the skills and experience they need to excel. But to public-sector unions in the pre-Janus dispensation, class-size reduction was always a good thing, as it meant more dues-paying members (or more non-members who had no choice but to pay agency fees). As their power wanes, there is more room for other approaches, such as a “Gold Star Teachers” initiative, an idea first outlined by the policy analysts Frederick Hess and Olivia Meeks: Talented teachers would be permitted to take on more students in exchange for more compensation. As Hess and Meeks explain, “given the choice between a Gold Star Teacher serving more children and another teacher working with fewer, many or most parents will likely prefer the larger class.” Just as importantly, high-quality teachers could decide for themselves whether a higher salary is worth the extra effort it would take to teach larger classes, without undue pressure from union representatives who insist on one-size-fits-all policies.

As for the creation of new forms of public employment, take the changing realities of urban crime. In Uneasy Peace, the sociologist Patrick Sharkey documents the dramatic social and economic benefits flowing from the decline in violent crime in large U.S. cities. Yet he also warns that aggressive urban policing has in many urban neighborhoods passed the point of diminishing returns. In order to build on the crime decline, Sharkey calls for a program of renewed urban investment and, more specifically, the hiring of a new class of urban peacekeepers—women and men rooted in the communities they serve, who would complement the efforts of the police and community organizations. One can imagine this being a transitional role for ex-offenders and young people considering longer-term careers in public service. Police unions might see these new urban cadres as a threat, especially if they prove cost-effective. But in a post-Janus world, police unions will have less clout and thus less ability to stymie such programs.

The ultimate result of de-unionization in the public sector could be, funnily enough, the renewed expansion of public employment. For the foreseeable future, mounting pension obligations will pose a serious barrier to public sector hiring. But if public-sector unions really are on the verge of being tamed, a growing number of state and local governments will have the wherewithal to experiment with more flexible, and more affordable, terms of employment. And if it becomes cheaper to hire public employees, demand for them will surely grow. Right now, the Janus case is being seen as a triumph for the small-government right. Some years from now, it might instead be seen in a different light—as the start of a golden age of public-sector innovation.

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