The Union of the State

I approve the concept of the labor union. In the private sector long ago, I spent my off-school time manning a wrecking crew, loading and driving trucks (age 15!), cleaning toilets, serving in food lines and carrying trays to patients. Most boys below draft age had full-time summer and part-time school-year jobs; there weren’t enough males yet returning from war to take their place until late 1946 and even after. Was I ever a union member? I’m not sure now, but I experienced and accepted the idea as an ordinary and useful economic aspect of our society. The worker needs a competitive economic status, thus he organizes to offset the power of the employers. The union allows him to share in the success of the latter’s enterprise which in turn depends upon the employee’s skill and diligence.

The union is thus a perfectly plausible part of the free enterprise system, taking its bargained share of the surplus generated by the business. If the workers take too much, there well soon be no jobs; all depends on the continued existence of the employer. In my home town (Duluth) the post-war strikes in the then prosperous steel mills became so cumbersome for the owners that many simply ceased business or moved down the Great Lakes to more viable locations. Does that suggest unions are bad? Not at all; they are merely fallible like the rest of us, and in my town they accidentally killed the goose for thousands of their members. Perhaps the experience taught their leaders prudence; maybe not. In any case what they had demonstrated was an elementary lesson in free enterprise.

There is another game that often goes by the same name, but there the similarity ceases. It is the world of government jobs where the enterprise cannot fail or even more – and the worker is tenured and virtually impossible to discharge however unqualified. It is the environment and statues of prison guards, police, and these workers in the country’s largest unions of this sort, our public school teachers.

The reader is familiar with the endless tale of teachers who are tenured and incompetent, who can be dismissed only after years of extended lawyering, all at substantial cost to the school district – cost that would be life-threatening to enterprise in the private sector.

Schools run by the government, however derelict, generally cannot fail. Since the 1960s, they have step-by-step surrendered to unions whose contract with the district requires every teacher to belong and pay dues. No deep-seated aversion to union policy will exempt any teacher.

Historically, the Supreme Court has-with limited exception – supported this union power to impose “agency fees” on all the teachers. The cost of union dominance has been explosive — the cost to the child even more so. Pupils can be stuck with teachers who can’t or just won’t teach; under their contract discharge is a bureaucratic and legal odyssey nearly worth the cost to the district. Worse, in my view, low-income parent and child can be sucked into an ideological trap offensive to their basic values. The teachers whom they are assigned may offend the ideal the family cherishes.

This year the United States Supreme Court will tell us whether this public snare – state protected union dues- is s constitutional wrong. Janus V. AFSCME will decide its foreseeable future. Quite plausibly eight of the justices will, once again, split evenly, leaving justice Anthony Kennedy to decide the boundaries of the power for the public unions. Either way, the outcome will be pivotal for the school, the have-not child and parent – and the civic order.