Progressives' Union Dilemma 2

Unions prevent government from being competent, but Democrats can't win without them.

The one bright, shining accomplishment of the Obama presidency is that it has provided abudant proof past all reasonable doubt that our modern government is simply, completely, overwhelmingly, systematically incapable of actually accomplishing anything useful at a reasonable cost, and often regardless of cost.

As conservatives, we welcome anything that encourages a betrayed electorate to remove leftist totalitarians from office.  As Americans, however, it's not pleasant to know that our government is so grossly incompetent.  After all, there really are some things that you need a government for, and they ought to be done well.  Nobody wants to hear that 40 veterans died waiting for care on an invisible list.

So for all that we want government to shrink, we also want it to be effective and competent, two attributes that are as far from true as night from day.  This article discusses the three common elements in the widely-known example of government failure we discussed in the previous article, and shows why it will be so hard to fix these problems.

Captive "Customers"

Few parents have enough money to send their kids to private schools or the energy to home-school them, so by default they send their children to the local public school no matter how dangerous or worthless it might be.  The schools get warm bottoms in their seats and tax dollars in their pockets no matter how ill-educated, unemployable, or criminal their "graduates" turn out.

Few veterans have the resources to buy medical services from private health care providers; they're stuck waiting their turn at the VA no matter how many of them die while waiting.  At least in line, there's a chance you'll get to the front before you keel over, so in the line they stay.

Not having access to George Jetson's form of transporation, none of us have any choice in the roads we use; government roads are the only roads there are, potholes and gridlock regardless.

This truth of monopoly captivity applies to most government agencies and activities.  Few of us go to the DMV because of the stellar service we get there, we go because it's required by law.  We don't deal with Social Security because we trust them to provide a comfortable retirement, we do so because money has been stolen from our paycheck every week for decades, like it or not, and we might as well try to get some of it back.

But this has always been true of government, or at least for a very long time, and it used to work better than it does today.  The lack of competition in government services alone doesn't explain their recent inability to cope, though it might explain why they seem unable to improve the situation no matter how much political pressure and money are applied.

"Customers" Don't Pay

The flip side of captive customers is that those customers don't pay, at least not directly by choice.

Parents don't pay for public schools and veterans don't pay the VA for the medical care they receive, so they have few levers to force the systems to be more productive  Of course they have paid, through their taxes or years of their lives in military service, but that's not something they can control or get a refund on.

We taxpayers pay for what road maintenance there is, and since virtually every American uses the roads we all have skin in the game.  Nobody pays directly, however, and there's no real connection between the driving you do and the taxes you pay.  Money for highway construction and maintenance comes out of tax funds collected for a variety of reasons.  Highway tolls and gas taxes are supposed to be dedicated to road maintenance, but these dedicated funds are routinely spent on other things.

In private businesses, there is a connection between people's choices and money received.  If you don't like being ripped off with charges for checked baggage on United, you can choose to fly Southwest which lets you check two bags for free; or, if you simply want the lowest possible fare, you can fly Spirit and pay extra fees for virtually everything else.  All three companies make money, but some more than others and at different times, because different customers choose differently - so they do have to care about what customers want and are willing to pay for.  Government doesn't have this feedback loop.

Yet the lack of a connection between customers and payment has always been true of government; this factor also doesn't explain the recent leadership fiascoes.

Government Employees Don't Have to Perform

Our civil service system is more than 100 years old.  It wasn't perfect when created by any means, but even up until a few decades ago, government employees could lose their jobs if they didn't do the work, whether by laziness, corruption, or just plain incompetence.  The political masters and the less-political managers both felt that a certain level of organizational competence was required and did what needed doing to make sure they got it.  Government employees have always had more leeway and less responsibility than private-sector workers, but there still were standards enforced albeit lower ones.

That started changing in 1962.  Two years after he became President in an election tainted by massive Chicago vote fraud, John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 which allowed federal employees to join unions.

Public sector unionization had been forbidden since Boston police officers went on strike in 1919 when the police commissioner wouldn't let them form a union.  Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts at the time, declared that police had no right to strike because they were an essential public service necessary for safety.  He fired more than 1,000 strikers and hired replacements from unemployed WW I veterans.  They quelled the riots that ensued when there were no police to stop criminals.

Members of the United Garment Workers Union refused to make uniforms so the new officers reported for work in civilian clothing.  Coolidge issued them makeshift badges anyway and life returned to normal.  Breaking the strike gave Coolidge national recognition - he was nominated and elected as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1920.

Although Coolidge was a Republican, his feelings on public-sector unions were bipartisan.  The greatest Democrat of yore, Franklin Roosevelt thought that virtually all private-sector workers should be in unions - but he found the idea of government unionization "unthinkable and intolerable."

By the 60s, attitudes had changed.  Instead of declaring that federal employees had no right to strike, the young Democrat president encouraged them to join unions.  Given that they already had civil service protection, federal employees are among the workers who need unionization least.  The point, of course, wasn't to benefit the workers; the goal was to give the union bosses who'd supported JFK another group of people from whom they could forcibly extract dues.

Extract they did!  Today, the public sector unions are the only viable unions left because unions have bankrupted most of the private sector businesses in which they're involved.  Knowing that Republican office holders will try to curb their right to extract dues, unions overwhelmingly support Democrats.

The unions have instituted such difficult processes for terminating workers that essentially no government employee is ever fired.  When the VA scandal broke, the House of Representatives passed a law which would allow the Secretary to fire non-performers among the top 450 officials.  The Democrat-controlled Senate hasn't bothered to even look at it.  This shows, however, that it takes an Act of Congress to get rid of non-performing federal employees!

One of my friends attended a state college.  As a business major, he studied the way the  administration ran the place.  The facilities staff were divided into "inside" and "outside" workers.  The "outside" crew shoveled snow, cut grass, trimmed hedges, and did other outdoor work.  The "inside" crew cleaned the building.

Once they'd shoveled the snow, the "outside" crew had little to do during the winter.  They spend most of their time playing cards in the break room and took vacations during the summer, when they had the most work.

The "inside" team, in contrast, spent their summers in the break room because there were no students messing up the place and took vacations in the winter when they had the most to do.  The very thought of either group doing the other's work was, of course, intolerable.

In return for paying dues, government workers get the right to hardly work at all.  VA waiting times are off the charts because nobody wants to work hard enough to clear the backlog.

The Democrat Dilemma

JFK's Faustian bargain with government employee unions has placed the Democrats on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, they can't win elections without union support and union cash.

Bill De Blasio was recently elected mayor of New York with substantial help from the teachers' union.  The city unions had worked without a contract for years because they knew that Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't give them raises.  Mr. De Blasio's first budget paid the teachers $4 billion in retroactive pay in return for their support.  It would be wonderful if the 1% could get such wonderful returns on their investments!

In any other context, that would be a massive bribe that would end up with both parties in Club Fed if not burned at the stake by furious taxpayers.  Under the bizarre rules of government unions and political funding, however,  it was entirely legal.  His "Honor" would even argue, with some justification, that his actions were democratically legitimate; after all, he just overwhelmingly won a free and fair election in which he promised to pour great heaping piles of cash into the pockets of union fatcats, did he not?

On the other hand, having taken union cash, Democrats dance to the union tune.  For decades, people have suggested that students be given vouchers to buy schooling elsewhere, and they've started suggesting that veterans be given health care vouchers for the same reason.  Unionized teachers and unionized VA workers don't like this idea, so it won't go anywhere under a Democratic administration.

Democrats can't achieve power without union support, but the price of union support is that they can't run government programs efficiently or effectively.  The worse the VA scandal, the less confidence our citizens will have in Obamacare.  The worse our schools and bridges operate, the less confidence citizens will have in government.

How can Democrats persuade voters to support new programs if the voters don't believe the government can deliver on its promises?  Yet now that their incompetence is revealed for all to see, how can Democrats win elections if the only way they can provide effective government is by destroying the unions that pay their bills?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments

Answer: because their incompetence is repackaged as someone else's fault (eg. oppression from the wealthy) with the media laying down cover fire. That works as long as you have (a) wealthy and (b) dumb voters. We have plenty of both.

June 17, 2014 11:02 AM

You have to actually read something about the corruption which is not so prevalent among the journalists of today. Most of them have sympathy for the unions. I f you did find out what was going on then you might have to decide if it was worth voting for something that would be against your best interests. The liberals have developed a beautiful scheme for re-electing themselves. The thing will blow up we and most liberals know but with the attitude that they will somehow be immune to the eventual chaos they go merrily on their way. Look at Argentina over the last 100 years. Arguably the wealthiest country in the world and they started by taxing the wealthy, added unions and government give-a-way programs and it imploded. The government imploded and was dissolved. With the new government they eventually went back to their old ways and the cycle restarted again. Today they are on their last legs of yet another socialist regime. It will implode and the cycle will restart again. Only pure capitalism will ever save Argentina from itself, everyone truly believes in Santa Claus.

June 17, 2014 2:12 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...