Should we outlaw public sector unions?

Yesterday, Daily News editorial board member Michael Schefer made his "It's Our Money” debut by linking to a post from conservative blogger Tom Smith. Writing in response to the recent snowstorm in New York City, Smith argues that the very existence of public sector unions is incompatible with the nature of government:

This is your government on public sector unions. If the argument is, some functions are too critical to public safety to put in private hands, then that is an argument against allowing them to be unionized. If unionized, then the state no longer has a monopoly on the power exercised by that arm, which is the whole idea of putting it in the public sphere.

Smith seems to be saying that government services are too important to allow any disruption from unions. I tend to agree that most government functions are critical enough to be preserved from disruption.

But there are positive aspects of having the public sector unionized. For example, unionized workers often have higher levels of job satisfaction, leading to greater productivity. Unionized workers also tend to stay at their jobs for longer periods of time, leading to greater expertise in delivering services. For a balanced looked at the pros and cons of public sector unionization, take a look at this paper from two professors at North Carolina State University.

More than anything, public sector unions force elected officials and taxpayers to have a conscience. We all want government services to be delivered as cheaply as possible, but that doesn't mean we should be cheap with the people who collect our trash, teach our children, or protect our neighborhoods from crime. Does occasional labor unrest, like what just happened during the snow cleanup in NYC (and can happen without a union, by the way) really outweigh that?

Now, it's true that many of these functions are so important that they should be protected from the biggest form of labor disruption -- the strike. My favorite example is public transit. Can anyone argue that public transit isn't vital to the region's economy? Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the system to get to work every day. If these folks -- many of whom do not own cars -- can't find reliable transportation, productivity suffers everywhere. And, during the last SEPTA strike, it did. That's a compelling argument for preventing labor pains.

But the choice isn't as simple as either "no unions" or "total chaos." For example, some unions in Philly, like those representing police officers and firefighters, are barred by state law from striking. Instead, they negotiate contracts through a process called binding arbitration. The union and the city agree to submit to the ruling of a three-member panel. This guarantees that contracts get worked out without picket lines.

There are problems with the arbitration process -- it has led to generous contracts for public safety workers, and takes decision-making out of the hands of elected officials -- but it definitely prevents "total chaos."

So if Smith's main concern is with preventing union disruption of public sector services, he could always call for more public sector unions to negotiate their contracts through arbitration. That way you avoid the main disruption unions can cause, without losing the upside of having the unions in the first place.

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