Thomas Gallatin / January 30, 2023

Government Unions: Costly and Corrupt

FDR warned that granting collective bargaining rights for public sector workers was “unthinkable and intolerable,” pitting government workers against taxpayers.

A century ago, the old idiom “good enough for government work” was actually intended to send the opposite message that it does today. It used to mean work that was viewed as the best of the best. Now, of course, it’s a phrase used to indicate subpar work done with minimal effort.

When referring to government work, the immediate adjectives that come to mind are inefficient, costly, needlessly tedious, and impersonal. Mention, for example, any state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and everyone immediately groans, thinking of a day wasted waiting in line for hours for one’s number to finally get called, often only to learn that one needs some heretofore insignificant piece of paperwork. It’s an infuriating experience that exposes for many the inefficiency, over-regulation, and coldness of government.

The question is, how did the American system of government become so bureaucratic, over-regulated, and bloated? How did both federal and state governments become more of a burden than a benefit to the average American citizen?

One significant factor, among many, can be blamed on the unionizing of government employees. Such a thing is an oxymoronic idea that even Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected. No less than the granddaddy of Big Government envisioned public sector workers striking against taxpayers as “unthinkable and intolerable,” arguing, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Unfortunately, FDR’s wise objections weren’t embraced, and now Americans suffer under both federal and state governments that have increasingly grown more costly, inefficient, burdensome, and rigid.

Public sector unions cost taxpayers more while producing less. “On average public service delivery is 35 to 95 percent more expensive than contracting” to private firms, observed David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in their 1992 book Reinventing Government. Ridiculous rules and regulations prevent efficiency while creating ever more unionized government employee bloat. The number of government workers totals over 22 million, two-thirds of which work in state government.

Public sector unions naturally result in pitting American citizens against their government, as those working in government have increasingly become more separated from the experiences of the average American working in the private sector. This separation, especially at the federal level, cultivates both an attitude of entitlement and superiority. A unionized culture tends toward orientating workers to focus on entitlements rather than on work-related accomplishments. As a result, a culture of complaints and demands for benefits is created as opposed to a culture that rewards productivity and quality work.

In his famous 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy spoke against the corrosive nature of an entitlement state, challenging the nation with these famous words: “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Ironically, it was Kennedy who in 1962 first granted federal workers collective bargaining rights. Evidently, his words were more sentiment than conviction, and thanks to Kennedy’s lead state governments increasingly granted collective bargaining rights to public sector employees.

All too often these public sector unions are working against the interests of the American taxpayer, with one of the most clear examples being that of the teachers unions. Especially during the pandemic, it became obvious that the primary concern of the teachers unions was not ensuring that children were being educated, but that their own ideological agenda was being implemented and enforced. Indeed, it seems that for teachers unions, parents are viewed as their biggest problem, not as their primary employer. As a result, children suffer, even as the cost of education continues to balloon.

That’s the perfect example of a union working against the people, which isn’t what government in America is supposed to do.

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