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The Corruption of Public Sector Unions

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

I, along with pretty much everybody across our country, was shocked, saddened, and angered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this summer. There was no good reason for the police officer to press his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly three minutes after he was unconscious, or to ignore his pleas for air and water with such cruel indifference. George Floyd’s death was unmistakebly a murder. Although Americans of all political persuasions were mostly unanimous on that point, the union representing Minneapolis’ police officers disagreed, lobbying heavily against the termination of Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered Mr. Floyd. This is just the latest incident in which police unions have helped their members evade accountability. Unions regularly interfere with disciplinary proceedings and extort politicians for employee benefits so lucrative that they have driven states and municipalities such as Detroit to the edge of bankruptcy. Unions’ blind defense of their members has created a culture in which police officers and other civil servants feel empowered to misbehave with near impunity.

Make no mistake, this phenomenon is not isolated to police departments; it extends to almost every part of the American civil service. Across the board, the unionization of public sector workers has created a culture of mediocrity and impunity in the civil service and facilitated the extortion of politicians, leading them to make unrealistic promises of lucrative benefits, bankrupting their constituents. 

While unions help create a level playing field between workers and management in the private sector, they do not work in the public sector for one reason: they are simply too powerful. Because civil servants’ bosses, politicians, are elected, the unions representing them often spend large amounts of money trying to influence the results of elections, essentially choosing who sits across from them at the negotiating table. Given that they are negotiating with people whom they have given, in some cases, tens of millions of dollars, it is no wonder that public sector unions are able to score such lucrative benefits for their members.

“We have the ability to elect our own boss”

To politicians, unions are powerful — and deep-pocketed — allies. Any politician’s attempt to undercut a union’s vast power would drain their campaign coffers in one fell swoop. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents public sector workers, is among the largest political donors in the country. In 2012, the AFSCME bankrolled an attempt to oust Gov. Scott Walker (WI), one of the few politicians not to fall for the siren call of union cash, in a recall election. The recall attempt, albeit unsuccessful, served as a reminder to politicians of the danger of crossing unions. Through their application of political (and financial) incentives, public sector unions are able to bully politicians into giving government employees generous, and often excessive, benefits, bankrupting municipalities and states. Those who don’t buy into this corruption, like Gov. Walker, do so at their own peril. The unions rarely acknowledge the terrifying extent of their power to the general public, lest we realize the extent of their influence. However, occasionally, everyone slips up. In 1975, a leader of the AFSCME rather succinctly remarked that the AFSCME wielded “the ability… to elect our own boss.”

With the power to select their negotiating partners, public sector unions have strongarmed politicians into giving government employees particularly lucrative benefits, compromising the public interest. Between 2000 and 2010, public sector wages grew twice as fast as those in the private sector. A public sector worker typically earns $14 more than their private sector counterpart for each hour worked. Of course, we can’t ignore the generous benefits that public sector workers earn in addition to their salaries. Civil servants are often allowed to retire early with generous (not to mention tax-deductible) pensions. They are more likely than their private sector counterparts to have employer-provided health insurance, and less likely to have to pay into it. Perhaps, public servants do not serve the public; rather, the public serves them.

“I know you don’t want to talk about the numbers”

All of this generosity is not without cost; states’ pension liabilities are often at least partially unfunded, which is to say that the states have no idea how they’ll ever pay them. To fully meet its pension obligations, California would have to collect an additional $6,279 in taxes from every single resident. Such tax hikes are politically unfeasible, because no politician likes raising taxes. Furthermore, politicians are likely to dig the state into a deeper whole, as their relatively short tenures incentivize myopia. It is always more politically convenient for them to overpromise today and cash in on campaign contributions from unions, leaving their states and cities bankrupt and forcing the next generation to clean up their fiscal mess. Barring some sort of economic miracle, there is no way that California, or any other state, for that matter, will be able to meet its pension liabilities in the long term. At some point, someone will have to be honest and tell civil servants that the lucrative benefits they were promised are untenable.

This is exactly what happened in New Jersey, where former Gov. Chris Christie (R) cut back on benefits for new teachers (without retroactively cutting benefits already promised) and began to fund the state’s pension liability at levels far greater than his predecessors, who chose to kick the proverbial can. Sure enough, videos of retired teachers berating the governor (and the governor berating them back, with predictable New Jerseyan acrimony) at town hall meetings were swirling around the internet. 

Needless to say, patronizingly yelling at elderly women is a bad look for a politician. The media took the bait, showing the supposedly out-of-touch governor delivering the news rather tactlessly: “I know you don’t want to talk about the numbers, but the numbers don’t add up,” he told one retiree. However, the episode begs the question: why were these retired teachers more mad at Gov. Christie for being honest and working in good faith to reach a solution for New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability than they were at his predecessors for lying to them about what the state could afford? This episode and the Walker recall demonstrate the political risk of resolving unfunded pension liabilities, even when doing so does not involve breaking any promises already made.

“Purge your files”

When public servants fail to do their jobs properly, whether that failure is a function of incompetence or malice, their union-negotiated contracts make it exceedingly difficult for governments to fire or discipline them. When internal disciplinary proceedings are undertaken, unions often rush to their members’ defense, be they incompetent schoolteachers, lazy firefighters, or violent cops. This is where George Floyd comes in; recall that even a man who everybody, from the “law and order” crowd on Fox News to Black Lives Matter protesters, agreed was a coldblooded murderer could count on his union to come to his defense. One only has to wonder what might have happened if Mr. Floyd’s murder had not been broadcast to the world and become national news. Absent widespread public scrutiny of the incident, would the Minneapolis Police Department have capitulated to the union’s demand that Derek Chauvin not be fired? 

Union interference with disciplinary proceedings also extends to the outright erasure of records documenting substantiated officer misconduct. Most union-negotiated police contracts include clauses letting records of officer misconduct be erased after as little as six months, often automatically. Police chiefs and union leaders often encourage officers to initiate the erasure of their records. In 2013, Mesa, AZ police chief Frank Milstead recorded a video in which he encouraged his officers to “purge their files,” imploring them to “make sure anything you don’t want in there isn’t in there.” Just a few hour’s drive away, in Phoenix, the records of 90% of all sustained misconduct allegations (which form just a small fraction of all misconduct complaints) are erased. Once records are purged, past misconduct cannot be considered during performance reviews and promotions, emboldening officers to use force excessively, knowing that the ramifications of citizen complaints on their careers will likely be very limited.

Erasure is far from the only problematic recordkeeping practice enacted under pressure from police unions. Statutes of limitations for filing complaints against a police officer can be as low as 30 days. Even once a complaint is filed, review boards often do very little. In Tacoma, WA, an internal review board sustained only 10 of the 250 complaints filed by citizens over a 14 month period, dismissing the rest as invalid. Even when a complaint is sustained, the officer is not usually fired. One Chicago police officer was even promoted after 4 of the 89 complaints filed against him were sustained, and one led to disciplinary action. Even in the exceedingly rare cases where complaints result in disciplinary action, the punishments are often troublingly commutable. In twenty cities across the country, officers are allowed to subtract time from their sick leave and vacation time in lieu of actually serving unpaid suspensions, thus preserving their salaries.

It is no wonder that police officers across the country feel that they can behave violently with impunity. Due to the influence their unions hold, policies for disciplining police officers are lackluster at best. Even in the rare cases in which a complaint is sustained and leads to disciplinary action, the officer’s record can be cleared in as little as six months. After that, police departments are barred from considering past misconduct when choosing whether to promote officers and during performance reviews. 

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor over the summer have led many to question the role of police unions specifically. Such scrutiny is certainly well deserved; however, shouldn’t it be more broad? Is an incompetent teacher deserving of the same impunity as a murderous cop, even though the ramifications of his actions are less severe? The same protection Derek Chauvin felt that his union membership provided him while he was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck applies to all manner of underwhelming civil servants. Although some underperforming public servants are more dangerous than others, none deserve to keep their jobs. I say this as someone descended from three generations of civil servants and who knows firsthand that incompetence, laziness, and malice are far from the norm in the civil service. Yet, bad behavior is nonetheless tolerated due to the unions’ desire to protect their members (and the dues that each member pays).

The very first step to be taken in reforming the role that public sector unions play should be to prohibit them from making political contributions. Their entire racket stems from their ability to buy favorable negotiating partners by contributing vast sums of money to political campaigns. As Scott Walker learned, when a politician does not capitulate to public sector unions’ demands, they can expect to see them heavily fund their opponents. If political leaders become less beholden to public sector unions, they will be less likely to continue promising unrealistically lucrative pensions and benefits, bankrupting their states and cities. Similarly, without financial pressure from unions, disciplinary and termination policies will likely evolve to make it easier for the government to reprimand or fire underperforming public servants. By undertaking this simple reform, we can improve our states’ finances and hold civil servants such as police officers accountable. The extortion of politicians by public sector unions is a profoundly corrupt practice, and it is past time that we enact this simple reform to end it.


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