Not All Public Sector Unions Are Made Equal

I am a member of a public-sector employee union.

In conservative circles, such an admission is tantamount to the sort one might hear at a 12-step meeting, an acknowledgment of some shameful addiction most decent people think should be corrected as quickly but as quietly as possible. But one should not infer from this admission that I am a parasite on the taxpayers of the city that employs me. In fact I would argue quite the opposite, that in the more than 25 years I have served with the Los Angeles Police Department, the citizens of the city have gotten their money’s worth from me and then some. I would further argue that when I retire sometime in the next few years, I will be fully deserving of the pension and other continuing benefits promised to me when as a young man I joined up with the LAPD.

As readers of my previous two columns (here and here) will know, I am not unsympathetic to the criticisms of public-sector unions and the tactics they sometimes employ in pursuit of improved wages, benefits, and working conditions for their members. And I’ve at times been especially critical of my own union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, most recently when it badly misjudged its members and encouraged them to participate in pro-union demonstrations organized by and other organizations whose views run counter to those held by the vast majority of police officers.

That said, I disagree with those conservatives who hold that public-sector unions are inherently objectionable. “Private sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in the Feb. 22 Los Angeles Times. “Government unions negotiate with politicians over taxpayer money … ”

To which I would answer, so what?

Like businesses, governments hire employees to perform those functions deemed necessary to fulfill their purposes. The fact that government employees are paid with taxpayers’ money does not negate the basic economic principle of bringing together “a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” That this principle has been bastardized into a money-laundering scheme that benefits one political party at the expense of the other -- and at the expense of the taxpayer -- should not be viewed as cause to abandon it, but rather as a call to elect representatives who might be more prudent stewards of the public fisc.

Citizens constitute governments and elect representatives whom they entrust with the authority to spend public money in the pursuit of public needs, among the most basic and necessary of which are fighting fires and fighting crime. Only a small fraction of the population is disposed to either profession, and it is in any community’s interests to hire and retain the people best qualified for those jobs.