Magazine article The American Conservative

Less Perfect Unions: Collective Bargaining Turns Teachers into Teamsters

Magazine article The American Conservative

Less Perfect Unions: Collective Bargaining Turns Teachers into Teamsters

Article excerpt

PROBABLY BECAUSE of a career spent toiling financial journalism--where being wrong matters, unlike in political journalism--I've grown very fond of Stein's Law. Formulated by the late economist Herb Stein, it states: "If something can't go on forever, it will stop." That's what we used to tell ourselves when I was at Forbes and we repeatedly predicted an end to the great bull market, which ignored us.

Then--guess what?

Current case in point: the sudden outbreak of hostilities between the governors of several states, notably Wisconsin and New Jersey, and their public-sector unions. The thing that cannot go on forever is public-sector unionism itself. Although this was generally lost sight of in mainstream media coverage of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's brawl with his state's government unions and Democrats--the two are barely distinguishable--public-sector unions are in fact quite new. They are fundamentally different animals from private-sector unions. And they are simply not a sustainable life form.

Even in the heroic age of American liberalism, labor union advocates like long-time AFL-CIO President George Meany and President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed unionization of the public sector as unthinkable. It was simply obvious that public unions would have too much power. From an economic point of view, all unions are engaged in trying to monopolize the supply of labor in their particular industries, in order to increase the price of work in the form of wages. But a public-sector union would be a monopoly on top of a monopoly: governments, after all, do not allow much competition in the services they provide.

Teachers' unions, in fact, benefit from a third level of monopoly: parents are legally compelled to send their children to school. And most parents have no affordable alternative but to send their sons and daughters to the government school that they have been taxed to support--partly because they have been taxed to support it. After paying taxes, few families have the income left for private-school fees.

Unlike consumers in the private sector, taxpayers cannot easily vote with their feet to choose a better service provider. So during the golden age of organized labor, public-sector unions were prohibited by law. But this reasonable inhibition--like so many others--abruptly vanished in the 1960s. In return for labor union support, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order allowing collective bargaining for federal employees. Similar developments occurred at the state level. Indeed, Wisconsin led the way, permitting teacher unionization in 1959.

Most prominently, collective bargaining for New York City teachers was won in 1961 after a bitter battle by the American Federation of Teachers under its legendary leader Al Shanker. This was the period that won Shanker his fearsome reputation. They even made a movie about it. In "Sleeper," Woody Allen awakes from a 200-year sleep and discovers that the world has been destroyed. He asks what happened and is told "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker thought this was quite funny and could recite the scene from memory.

The National Education Association, which until then had actually been the professional association that many people think it still is, began to lose prospective members to the AFT. Prounionization militants inside the NEA--mostly from the labor state of Michigan, including future executive director Don Cameron and future presidents Keith Geiger and Terry Herndon, known collectively as the "Michigan Mafia"--were able to seize control. They transformed the NEA into a full-fledged labor union--it's now the biggest in the country, with 3.2 million members--although its headquarters in D.C., conveniently near the Soviet Embassy, continued for many years to enjoy a professional association's property tax exemption, to Shanker's great rage.

Unionization wasn't always pretty, though the ugly episodes are typically glossed over by a pro-union media. …

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