Discussing Challenges With Public Sector Unions

Host Melissa Block speaks with Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York, about the challenges he sees with public sector unions.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We wanted to understand some of the ideas behind Republican efforts to curb the power of public sector unions. Last fall, Daniel DiSalvo published an essay titled "The Trouble with Public Sector Unions" in the conservative journal National Affairs.

DiSalvo teaches political science at the City College of New York, and he begins with the point about that same union money Peter Overby was talking about.

Professor DANIEL DISALVO (Political Science, City College of New York): Public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere use their union dues to support Democratic candidates, lobby Democratic candidates. And in effect, in so far as taxpayers are ultimately the ones who pay public employees salaries and pay those union dues, public employees are in effect subsidizing the Democratic Party.

So for Republicans, that's a strong incentive to reduce that power in hopes of increasing their future electoral fortunes.

BLOCK: When you say the taxpayers pay those union dues, what do you mean? That's money that would be deducted from an employee's paycheck.

Prof. DISALVO: That's correct. So in so far as tax revenue pays state employee's salaries, then part of those salaries are deducted by the state and those monies are then transferred to unions who use them both for paying the administrative cost of collective bargaining and for political activity closely aligned with the priorities of the Democratic Party.

BLOCK: Do you see a problem with that? I mean, what is the philosophical notion that they might dispute when you say there's a trouble with public sector unions?

Prof. DISALVO: Well, that's one problematic aspect, at least from the point of view of the other major political party in the country. The other larger philosophic critiques that have been marshaled in the past against public sector unions, say, by Franklin Roosevelt or George Meany, who was head of the AFL-CIO, was that they compromise in some ways the democratic process in so far as the usual democratic theory is, voters elect politicians, politicians make decisions about public priorities, and then instruct bureaucracies to carry out those orders.

When government workers are unionized, the issue is that voters elect politicians who then begin to negotiate with unelected union officials over what public priorities will be carried out and to what degree.

BLOCK: One of the things that you say in your article, "The Trouble with Public Sector Unions," is this, that public sector unions have manifestly negative consequences. What do you think those negative consequences are?

Prof. DISALVO: A lot of compensation for public employees occurs after, in fact, they stop working. And states have a problem with funding their pension and health care plans, which are promised to future workers. That's one aspect.

The other aspect is that, in terms of government responsiveness and efficiency, in so far as collective bargaining processes negotiate work rules, they can induce rigidities into the way that government employees carry out their jobs on a day-to-day basis. And this can stifle innovation and, in the long run, make government less efficient and give taxpayers less for their dollar than they might otherwise get.

BLOCK: Wouldn't those - some of those things that you call rigidities, in some cases, be things that would be very beneficial for the public? I mean, it might be class size for teachers or a patient caseload for a worker at a hospital, not just something that benefits the worker, but that has a broader social impact that benefits a lot of people.

Prof. DISALVO: Some of those things are certainly true. And one can imagine scenarios where, yes, teachers' unions protect teachers, and they protect good and bad teachers. The problem is that they tend to protect bad teachers. But, of course, we all want to protect good teachers from, say, capricious principals.

BLOCK: When you look at what's going on in Wisconsin, with these two sides being so diametrically opposed, it seems at this point, do you see a middle ground in which public sector unions could still retain a wide range of collective bargaining rights and satisfy the wishes of the governor, or do you think that's completely off the table?

Prof. DISALVO: Well, one could imagine a scenario where the unions retained strong collective bargaining rights on paper, but their ability to raise funds through the dues deductions went down, and therefore they had much weaker power in terms of lobbying and political activity. One could imagine that as a scenario that might achieve a kind of equilibrium in public sector labor relations.

BLOCK: Daniel DiSalvo, thanks very much.

Prof. DISALVO: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Daniel DiSalvo teaches political science at the City College of New York.

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