Unions and Government Should Not Mix: A California Case Study

by James Sherk

If you had a bad rush hour this week, it could be worse: You could be commuting in San Francisco, where the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike has shut down public transit.

Epic gridlock has ensued as 400,000 mass transit commuters moved to the highways. The Bay Bridge has been gridlocked by 6:30 a.m. The work time lost in these traffic jams will cost San Francisco’s economy $73 million a day. California appears determined to demonstrate how not to run a state.

BART employees already get paid very well. On average, their total compensation tops $130,000 a year — $80,000 in cash wages and another $50,000 in benefits. BART offered its employees 8 percent raises over the next four years. That wasn’t good enough for the unions. They want a 21 percent pay hike over three years. The transit system said it couldn’t afford that, so the unions shut everything down.

In some ways, it’s hard to fault them. Almost everybody wants a raise, no matter how much they currently make. And unions exist to get those raises. As Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, famously explained, unions want “More! More today, and more tomorrow; and then we shall want more and more.”

The fault lies with laws unionizing government employees in the first place. Gompers and the early trade unionists didn’t believe unions belonged in government. Rightly or wrongly, they viewed unions as fighting a class struggle against capital. They saw unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create.

That raison d’être doesn’t exist in government, which has no profits to redistribute. Instead, the government collects taxes to operate public services, such as police, schools and mass transit. Government monopolies on these services give unions incredible leverage over the public. They can hijack essential services until they get more. And more and more. Government unions have immense power to demand the state put their financial interests first.

This once made as little sense to unions as it now does to frustrated San Franciscan commuters. As recently as 1959, the AFL-CIO Executive Council argued that collective bargaining did not belong in government. Californians should heed that advice today.

— James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation.