Would Shutting Down Public Unions Really Save the State?

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A new ballot initiative, authored by a UC Santa Barbara economist, seeks to end collective bargaining for public employees in California. There is merit to this proposal, given the power of public employees unions and the multiple protections they enjoy as both civil servants and union members. The handful of states that don't permit collective bargaining for public workers are all better managed than California in most ratings.

Still, one wonders if the difficulty of winning such a campaign -- which would be a declaration of total war against the unions -- would be worth the benefits of making a change.

That may seem strange to hear, since both the center and right of the political spectrum (not to mention a significant piece of the left) see public employees' unions as an obstacle reform. There is no shortage of examples of policy areas in which that's true (education, with all the union-negotiated protections for bad teachers, is the prime case). And having unions clearly ends up costing the government more, to the extent the unions can negotiate better pay and benefits.

But here's the hard fact about California: public employees unions -- and the costs associated with such unions -- are only one part of the problem. California could fire every prison guard and still face a big deficit. Getting rid of collective bargaining for public workers would diminish these unions'  power, but only so much. Workers would still have to be paid. They still would have retirement benefits. They still would have legal protections as public employees. And they would still be a political force, albeit diminished.

No, the problem with unions isn't that they're destroying the system. The problem with the public employee unions is that they've been very good at using their size and political power to carve out special protections for themselves within the broken system. That system was created by voters, politicians, and interest groups of all kinds, including public unions. Get rid of the unions and you still have a broken system.

And getting rid of the unions would be very difficult and costly politically, for not much reward. The better idea is to use a mix of unrelenting pressure (particulalry in collective bargaining) and engagement with unions so that they participate in fixing the system.

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