Law & the Courts

Civil Service and Civil Rights Are Not Synonymous

Government employees’ unions harm the poor much more than they help them.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the landmark Janus v. AFSCME case, the rhetoric from government-union leaders and their allies is tilting toward the absurd, the disingenuous, and the downright evil. One emerging theme neatly combines all three: the notion that government unions are good for black and other poor Americans, and that any attempt to undo them is an act of violent racism.

The February 26 Supreme Court case pits an Illinois man named Mark Janus against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union to which he’s forced to pay dues to retain his job as a state social worker. Janus says he doesn’t want to pay those dues — he doesn’t like AFSCME’s politics, and making him pay the union anything violates his right to freedom of speech. But pay he must, if he wants to keep his government job. And so he has sued.

If the Supreme Court finds for Mark Janus, government unions believe they’ll lose members. Losing members means losing membership dues — and that would leave the unions with a diminished capacity to support political candidates who, once in office, vote to support ever-rising pay and benefits for public employees.

This explains the desperation of government-union leaders to tie the Janus case to the cause of identity politics, and specifically to the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Local 860 of New York’s Civil Service Employees Association is asking its members to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of striking black sanitation workers in 1968 by marching against Janus. “Undercutting our right to organize exacerbates the racial wage gap and starves the unions that give communities of color a voice against corporate interests,” CSEA asserts.

Of course, a ruling for Mark Janus would not stop unions from organizing. It would simply end laws that force people to join a government union. But that’s mere logic, and it may not stand a chance in the face of a meme so widespread that it appears to have been disseminated from a single source throughout every government union in the republic. (As a sample, here’s AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, the lefty Economic Policy Institute, and the State University of New York’s United University Professions union.)

That claim is being refracted throughout the media. The Daily Beast’s Barrett Holmes Pitner says the Janus case is an attack on public-employee unions, and “attacks on public-employee unions represent an extension of the numerous attacks upon minorities engulfing America.”

Holmes Pitner offers three pieces of evidence: First, Mark Janus is “a white male.” Second, some right-to-work movements had their origins in racist groups in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, he writes, “Public-sector jobs have historically provided employment opportunities for African Americans before the private sector did, and the employment opportunities created within them provided the black community with job opportunities that never existed before.”

Like numberless others, Pitner makes the mistake of seeing only one side of the union equation — the side of those who are employed. But there’s another side to the public-sector-union equation, a side that reveals the unintended consequences that fall most disastrously on America’s poor and working-class people.

In California, where I live, for instance, prison guards belong to one of the state’s most powerful government unions. That’s the union behind the kind of mandatory sentencing that erupted most famously in California’s notorious Three Strikes Law.

There’s another side to the public-sector-union equation, a side that reveals the unintended consequences that fall most disastrously on America’s poor and working-class people.

Their motivation is at least in part an economic one: Mandatory sentencing keeps our prisons full. It costs nearly $75,000 per year to house a California prisoner — something like sending each of our prisoners to Stanford for a year. That’s more than $10 billion per year for our prison population of about 130,000 people. The reason the cost is so high? Compensation for the government workers who manage the system. (Check out the six-figure pay for corrections workers at

Something like that is true in public education, too, where the party of government collects revenue even where it fails to produce anything like education. The parents of rich kids have “choice” in their children’s education. Middle-class kids go to neighborhood public schools that are at least mediocre if they’re not actually good. But when poor kids find themselves trapped in failing schools, it’s teachers’-union leaders who block the exits. In Anaheim, that meant denying hundreds of parents the ability to transfer their kids into better schools. When parents at one school used an obscure California law to demand its conversion to a charter, it was the teachers’ union again that pushed district officials to fight the parents in court for three years. (In a rare instance of justice, the parents won last year.)

In the critical Vergara case, it was the powerful California Teachers Association that backed the state’s legal fight against poor kids who just wanted to end the teachers’ tenure system, which leaves them with a revolving door of young and inexperienced teachers — or teachers so bad they had been driven out of schools in wealthier neighborhoods. At trial, the judge said the pernicious impact of the teachers’ union in Los Angeles “shocks the conscience.” But conscience is rare: The teachers’ union persisted, and won on appeal.

If you think government unions are on the side of the angels, read the Obama administration’s Ferguson report — but not before bedtime. It’s a chilling account of the way government-union money funded the election of city leaders who approved the use of the Ferguson Police Department to raise money for an otherwise bankrupt city. The report found that mostly white cops fined mostly black residents for even minor offenses in order to boost city revenue. The result: civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Headlines don’t always tell the whole story, but this one in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch comes close: “DOJ finds Ferguson targeted African-Americans, used courts mainly to increase revenue.”

In California, the costs of paying retirement benefits to public employees is so high that city officials are simply cutting essential services. We call that service-level insolvency. That’s a system in which we pay fewer and fewer government employees to process the money that pays them and the retirees who came before them — but nothing else. In El Monte, at least eight retired government workers receive pensions of at least $200,000 per year. They’re paid for by the city’s residents, over half of whom are foreign-born and more than a quarter of whom are poor. The huddled masses are numerous here. And they pay for the government workers.

In many California cities, local officials have turned to a massive credit scam that shifts wealth from the poor to the rich. They raise cash through municipal-bond sales that promise utopia but deliver 30 years of high interest payments. Wall Street bankers and government union leaders win.

The rich can move. The poor have no escape. Salinas city officials determined they had to raise the local sales tax in order to pay for rising government-employee compensation. They made their case to residents in a campaign funded by public dollars — effectively using the public’s money to persuade the voters to let government take more of their money. When two residents sued the city for using taxpayer money in the campaign, city officials sued the residents for infringing on the city’s free-speech right. A state judge sided with the city. That decision, Vargas v. City of Salinas, bankrupted the activists.

We needn’t even calculate the jobs lost in California because of rising taxes to support vampiric government unions. But you get the picture: The argument that unions have helped some black Americans ignores — deliberately or ignorantly — the huge numbers of poor people those unions injure or even fatally crush.


Will Swaim is the president of the California Policy Center and a co-host, with David Bahnsen, of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast.


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