Some of the Animals Are More Equal Than Others

In her Washington Post column this morning Megan McArdle muses about the marriage of convenience between the Democratic Party and public employees’ unions:

Progressive professionals might not like every single thing the teachers unions or the transit workers did, but they could live with it — and if services became really intolerably bad, they moved someplace where the unions were less intransigent, even while insisting that they were very supportive of public services, and of a well-paid government workforce represented by government unions.

The death of George Floyd, however, made it a little bit harder to voice full-throated support for government unions. Progressives raged at each new revelation of how insulated police officers had been from any sort of accountability for abusing their power. They had a whole bevy of union-negotiated special protections that made it hard to convict bad cops, and just as hard to separate them from the force.

When progressives pointed out, correctly, that this was an outrageous abuse of the public trust, the responses from the police unions tended to fall between unrepentant and obnoxious. For the first time, one heard good lefties discussing abolishing a public-sector union, or at least sharply curtailing its bargaining rights so that public safety would be the priority, rather than guaranteeing police jobs.

When conservatives pointed out, somewhat acerbically, that they’d been calling for the abolition of government unions for decades, those progressives explained that police unions were a unique case, and they still wholeheartedly supported good government unions like teachers unions, which would never put the welfare of their members above the good of the children. Democratic coalition saved.

Then blue-state school districts tried to reopen. The teachers unions balked, or rather made demands so extensive that they could not possibly be accommodated in any reasonable time frame. In districts where the schools are run by school boards, elected in low-turnout, union-dominated elections, the schools stayed closed. And one started to hear a lot of people saying, “Of course I support teachers unions, but….”

Yet even those critics couldn’t quite bring themselves to acknowledge what was happening: Unions were advocating for policies that might lower what was already a small risk to their members even though this effectively meant millions of children would fall even further behind in their schooling while parents struggled to work. They were doing this not because they had irrational fears that could be explained away, but because they cared more about small risks to themselves than large risks to others, and had made a clear-eyed calculation that they could get away with it.

That’s also what the police unions had done; it is what unions do. If what is best for the employees happens to be good for employers or customers, great, but if it makes them worse off, that’s not the union’s problem. This doesn’t magically change because the “customers” are adorable children and the employers are angry taxpayers.

I’ve made my views clear in the past. The difference between a professional and any other workers is not compensation level but the presumption that professional work in the public good. In my view that is incompatible with being represented by a union.

Additionally, public employees’ unions contributing to political campaigns is an inherently corrupt arrangement, recycling tax dollars to public employee wages to political contributions. The only way to clean it up is to ban such contributions outright—including in-kind contributions.

Finally, I agree with Calvin Coolidge:

There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time

and Franklin Roosevelt:

The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service

Even if you accept public employees’ unions their staging strikes is heinous. What teachers’ unions are presently doing is demanding special privileges, holding children and the economy hostage in the process. This must stop.

4 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    A professional also submits to an enforceable code of ethics. Thus professional engineers, licensed or not, are professionals but scientists are not. Physicians are also professionals, but there is some question about lawyers. Some financial advisors are professionals with fiduciary responsibilities, but many are just predators.

  • Yes, bob sykes, professionals are supposed to be self-regulating, based on their codes of ethics.

    One of the many reasons I think that the movement to render journalism a profession has been ill-considered.

  • steve Link

    Have mixed feelings about public unions so wouldnt break my heart to see them go away. However, for McArdle to not acknowledge that it is conservatives who have always opposed any attempts at setting limits on police unions is pretty hackish of her.

    If we eliminate the public union money to political loop could we also eliminate the subsidies and tax cuts to the wealthy then massive donations in money and in kind to politicians?


  • If we eliminate the public union money to political loop could we also eliminate the subsidies and tax cuts to the wealthy then massive donations in money and in kind to politicians?

    As far as I’m concerned all political contributions should be strictly limited. I think that the Supreme Court erred—money isn’t speech; money is money and speech is speech.

    However, I should point out that the contributions from wealthy individuals are about the same for Democrats as for Republicans.

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