Political Power of Public Sector Unions

The Weekly Standard has a good piece on the growing political power of public sector unions, with a short history lesson, and many of the consequences (e.g. unaffordable state and local pension plans).  The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a shorter version of this article.

Like banks, but with even less self-control, state governments make long-term promises in boom times while depending on the short-term flow of revenues. But when the boom ends, the benefits that have been ratcheted up have to be paid for out of a declining private sector economy. Barring a sharp recovery, state and local government tax-funded pension contributions in New York are likely to triple over the next five years in order to pay out the pension benefits guaranteed by the state constitution. (This is equally true in Illinois.) California’s public pension fund liability has already topped $200 billion, and in cities such as Oakland, Vallejo, and Rio Vista bankruptcy looms.

In the states and cities where government workers’ unions are strong, they have formed alliances with nonprofit advocacy groups such as ACORN and foundations committed to greater government involvement in the economy and society. The Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga argues that this constellation of forces is in effect a new Tammany Hall. It is, says Seymour Lachman, a former New York state senator who now heads a center for government reform at Wagner College, “the ward heeler system of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall wrapped in some kind of progressive disguise.” The old Tammany, however, was subject to electoral defeats. The new Tammanies have proved self-perpetuating. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger’s ill-organized effort to roll back public sector union power in 2005 led to the muscleman’s first defeat, then his political evisceration, and now the Golden State’s fiscal humiliation. New York City and State are on a similar course. Across the country the new political machine has mostly been aligned with the Democratic party. Some individual unions, however, such as California’s prison guards and New York’s hospital workers, have been protected and advanced by Republicans. Still others play a pragmatic balance-of-power game, forging short-lived marriages of convenience with either political party.