Should taxpayers spend $500 million annually to strengthen and further fund political action committees that lobby for ever-larger government spending?
That’s the question that should have been asked last month when lawmakers discussed Senate Bill 135, which grants collective-bargaining abilities to Nevada state government workers. Such a policy will increase annual spending by an estimated $500 million annually—but that’s just the beginning.
The argument put forward to justify this staggering increase in future spending is based on a false belief that state workers are underpaid. Compensation for Nevada state workers, however, already ranks among the highest nationwide, dwarfing the amount earned by the average taxpayer. At 49 percent greater than the average private-sector worker, compensation for Nevada state workers ranked second highest in the country.
Beyond the raw data, the behavior of state workers themselves indicates a clear satisfaction with current compensation levels. Nevada state government workers have a voluntarily quit rate of roughly one-third the level found in the private sector—indicating a clear satisfaction with current pay and benefits.
Nonetheless, lawmakers clamored to ensure public-sector unions had a sea of new dues-paying members in state government with the drafting and introduction of SB135.
From a political perspective, the policy is unsurprising. Politicians are keenly aware of the outsized role public sector unions play in the election process—essentially operating as tax-funded political action committees—and are more than happy to spend taxpayer dollars to earn their political support. It’s one of the reasons that even some of the most ardent supporters of labor unions, once upon a time, used to argue against the unionization of taxpayer-funded government workers.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most vocal supporters of the labor movement, was among those who warned against the corrosive effect public-sector unionization would have on our democratic process. And he wasn’t alone. Labor organizations themselves even recognized the problem with public-sector unionization. AFL-CIO President George Meany, for example, declared in 1955 that, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
The reluctance to allow collective bargaining in the public sector was a widespread and bipartisan position, because it was commonly understood that there is a fundamental difference between the private and public sector.
In the private sector, unionization and collective bargaining was used as a tool to temper what was seen as excessive greed by management in industry. Managers and business owners who could personally profit by underpaying or mistreating workers could be held accountable by workers collectively demanding better treatment and greater pay. Negotiations in the private sector, therefore, are over profits and a business owner’s willingness to endure a strike.
The public sector, however, has neither owners nor profits over which to negotiate. The result is that unions must engage in political action to ensure their demands are prioritized by politician-employers.
To this end, public sector unions have become a highly concentrated, politically active, constituency—and they openly act as lobbyists, campaign contributors and grassroots organizers for those politicians who prioritize their demands over the concerns of taxpayers.
Such corrosion of the democratic process would come as no surprise to people like FDR or Meany. Using taxpayer-funded dues revenue to fund organizations that consistently lobby for ever-more taxpayer funded dues revenue inherently leads to taxpayers bearing the burden of ever-increasing public-sector spending.
Extending collective bargaining abilities to state workers isn’t about ensuring fair wages—these workers already receive some of the best in the nation. And the $500 million price tag makes it self-evident that it’s not about protecting the interests of taxpayers.
Instead, this is precisely the kind of corruption of the democratic process—at taxpayer expense—FDR warned about when he spoke out against unionizing government workers. Extending collective bargaining to state workers is a political effort to expand the number of workers paying dues from their taxpayer-funded paychecks to organizations that act as political action committees for “friendly” politicians.
In short, it’s crony political incentives — rather than an admirable desire to ensure fair pay for workers — that is behind the push to extend collective bargaining abilities to state workers. Taxpayers should not be burdened with the fiscal cost of such a blatantly political maneuver.