Unionize for productivity? Right

The uproar over Governor Ritter’s executive order setting all state employees on a path to unionization has been extraordinary. Business outrage, legislative indignation, and editorial denunciation all indicate a political event of seismic proportion. Politics aside however, thoughtful observers were even more astonished by the governor’s bold assertion that his decision was a sure path to improved service and greater productivity on the part of state workers.

Unfortunately there is no persuasive evidence in this state, in this country, or for that matter the world that supports this assertion. In fact the preponderance of evidence points in precisely the opposite direction – poorer service and lower productivity. The historical record makes this quite clear.

Unions reached their peak a half century ago when nearly one in three American workers were members. During the first half of the 20th century unions provided a much needed corrective to the excesses of the capitalist system. Their valuable role in bringing about a reasonable equilibrium between labor and management cannot be denied.

Time however has passed unions by – a helpful influence in the first half of the last century became a dragging anchor in the second. Having outlived their usefulness to the American economy and American workers alike, unions have seen a steady decline in membership. Yet concurrent with this fifty-year union decline, the American economy, and the well-being of the American worker has soared to hitherto unimaginable heights. Positive developments in technology, competition, trade, deregulation, and management have fueled this astonishing explosion of productivity; unions have only hindered it.

Today, fewer than one American worker in seven belongs to a labor union, and it is most instructive to see where you find them.

Unions in the private sector are almost an endangered species, and those industries where they remain prominent – such as auto manufacturing- are in deep trouble owing to utterly unsustainable union contracts. In the public sector, however, union membership, wealth and political clout is thriving. Absent the public, sector unionism in America is a non-entity.

It is most useful to ask what explains this stark dichotomy between private and public sector unions.

Joseph Stalin famously described his success in disposing of political opponents with the phrase “No man, no problem”. In the union context that might read “no competition, no problem”.

What school districts, municipalities, state and federal government have in common is that all are essentially monopoly enterprises with no competitors.

Let us be clear that public service has been an honorable, satisfying, and worthwhile calling long before it encountered unions and will continue to be with or without unions.

It is equally clear that union leaders understand better than anyone that competition for them is the kiss of death and they will do absolutely anything in their power to snuff it out before it can demonstrate its inherent popularity and effectiveness. An example of this “preserve the monopoly at all costs” behavior is the recent flood of union money and manpower that poured into Utah to pass a ballot initiative overturning a new law that granted school vouchers to poor children.

This behavior and all the history that proceeds it should tell us all we need to know about any connection between unions and either productivity or the public interest.

Bill Ritter is a decent and sincere man who obviously wants what is good for Colorado. No doubt a case can be made for his recent executive order but trying to justify it as promoting improved service and productivity flies in the face of all history and common sense.

Not long ago Governor Ritter wisely and courageously vetoed a naked union power grab that had been jammed through the legislature by the usual suspects. Though incurring the furious wrath of his party’s left wing which had long viewed him darkly, Ritter caught the eye of the nation and suggested that Colorado had elected a truly “New Democrat” who harkened to the better angels of his party’s distant but honorable past, a man ready to defy the special interest on behalf of the public interest.

On a bleak Friday afternoon these illusions were shattered. We must all hope that for our governor and our state better days are ahead.

Colorado Education Commissioner from 1997-2007, Dr. Moloney is also a former member of the NEA and the Teamsters Union