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The tyranny of government unions

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If the corruption in little Bell, Calif., were merely an isolated case of bizarre circumstances, the rest of us could laugh and be glad we live elsewhere. But, sadly, Bell is a small picture of what is crippling the country.

Bell is a "city" of 37,000 people and only 2.5 acres just outside of Los Angeles. Despite its small size and relatively poor populace, the city's chief administrative officer was earning almost $800,000 a year. His assistant took in $376,288 annually, and the police chief was taking home $457,000. They're now all in jail on corruption charges.

What galls us is that while they were "officially" public servants, they were actually fleecing the public for inordinate private gain. But we are coming to understand that is what everybody who works for the government does through his or her powerful unions.

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In August, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the nation through The Wall Street Journal that the public service employee union was bankrupting his state. He reported that "roughly 80 cents of every government dollar in California goes to employee compensation and benefits." As California goes, so goes the nation.

He shared this horror story:

"Few Californians in the private sector have $1 million in savings, but that's effectively the retirement account they guarantee to public employees who opt to retire at age 55 and are entitled to a monthly, inflation-protected check of $3,000 for the rest of their lives."

And this one:

"This year, retirement benefits . . . are destined to grow so much faster than state revenues that they threaten to suck up the money for every other program in the state budget."

In other words, the government of California is soon to become one big pension program for former government employees and to have no other purpose. Where does that leave working Californians and their children but without a government at all?

In October, David Brooks turned the glare of his New York Times column on public employee compensation in New Jersey that is preventing that state from undertaking the sort of essential infrastructure improvement that was financially a cinch 50 years ago:

"New Jersey can't afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state's employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.

"New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.

"California can't afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on higher education)."

And this week in The Wall Street Journal, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a moral case against public service employee unions in principle. Adding his own horror stories (such as the fact that the average federal employee earns over $123,000 a year in pay and benefits, twice what people in the private sector get), he closes with this paradigm shift:

"The moral case for unions-protecting working families from exploitation-does not apply to public employment. Government employees today are among the most protected, well-paid employees in the country. Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them."

We political theorists have a technical term for people in government using public authority for private advantage instead of public service. We call it "tyranny." These unions are organized not to help their members serve the public better but to maximize pay and benefits while minimizing work. Taxpayers want just the opposite (within the bounds of decency, of course). Essentially, government unions are public enemies. Insofar as they control our government (and they do), they have institutionalized tyranny from within our public administration.

The coming budget wars, the fight for national solvency and perhaps even for national sovereignty, will have to face the enemy within.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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