The Problem With Public Sector Unions


This week president Obama wisely signed an executive order to stop SEPTA regional rail employees from striking. Like the recent BART Strike, public opinion for the strike was low. As it should be. Public sector unions are terrible for society. They are basically sanctioned mafia groups that we allow to control monopolies funded by public tax dollars.

That’s why SEPTA electrical workers average $55,120 a year and engineers earn $95,290 a year plus overtime and generous pensions. We basically hired the employees and handed them the keys to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of rail infrastructure. Now they’re dangling the keys above us as we prance like a dog on its hind legs begging for them to give it back.

But we shouldn’t be begging – our tax dollars own the train. The decision of whether or not the trains run should be the taxpayers, not the employees. When it comes to transporting hundreds of thousands of people, the 50 ton trains we paid for tend to do the bulk of the work.

That’s why the differences between public sector and private sector unions is huge. If TGI Friday’s employees unionize, they have the power to shut down TGI Friday’s – which is a devastating loss only to people who want an affordable BBQ meat pasta but refuse to walk across the street to Chili’s. The end result is that TGI Friday’s will lose revenue, the employees will lose a proportionate amount of wages, and if they can’t settle then TGI Friday’s will just have to shutter its door or hire scabs.

But the government can’t hire scabs. And more importantly, if the government trains are shut down, there are no other trains. Everyone is fucked – and the transit employees know that. Not only are they out wages, the entire city is out of wages. Unless the transit employees get more money, there will be no bankers, lawyers, or doctors getting to work. Suddenly the transit employees are incredibly valuable. Even though in reality they are no more valuable than any other electrician, they are now magic electricians as valuable as the hundreds of multi-million dollar trains they hold hostage. They are in effect 1 part electrician and 10 parts bouncer – pulling down the velvet rope to the subway car unless everyone slips them a twenty.

That’s how the station agents who sell tokens make $30 an hour, while movie theater ticketers make $7.50 hour despite having more or less the same job. If token sellers actually provided $30 an hour with of labor, they’d make it so you could actually understand what they said through the window instead of it sounding like they’re speaking being waterboarded while speaking Elvish.

Unfortunately, we’re moving in the wrong direction. While we need more private unions to protect workers from increasingly profitable corporations, the public unions holding our infrastructure hostage is where union growth is headed. Check out this statistic:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership among all U.S. workers fell to 11.3 percent in 2012 — the lowest level since 1916. Yet public-sector workers had a union membership rate of 35.9 percent — more than five times that of private-sector workers, at 6.6 percent.

Unions are great when they let labor capture a greater percentage of the income it generates. But they’re horrible when they’re allowed to hold cities immobile for ransom. Unfortunately, these are the unions in the United States that are succeeding. It’s less newspaper boys in Newsies and more Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

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