Public unions are the darlings of the American left. The money they raise and the foot soldiers they field are integral to Democratic electoral success.
This friendship is taken for granted as a natural extension of liberal-labor solidarity. But does the alliance stand to reason? Do the first principles of the American left – progressive liberals, mainly – really jibe with the aims and guiding philosophy of public unions?
Progressives, including confirmed champions of labor, initially bristled at the notion of public unions. Franklin Roosevelt set the tone with comments such as these:
All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that “under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government.”
Progressives were inspired by the desire for clean, transparent government. They saw the state as a proxy for “the whole people,” beholden to the general will. Despised were the old politics of competing and collaborating interests lubricated by quid-pro-quos and sustained by cronyism. Progressives called for a new order built around civil servants: competent, nonpartisan technocrats who gained appointment by merit and marched to the beat of the popular drum.
From the start, progressives recognized the danger of commercial influence, savaging collusion between the people’s representatives and wealthy corporations concerned with profit rather than the public well-being.
Progressivism’s critique of corporate power has endured; its critique of public union power has faded away. It warrants resuscitation. Public unions are not the evil specters imagined by radical Republicans — yet their obscure and undemocratic habits should offend Americans with progressive sympathies.
In essence, public unions form a sort of shadow government. They have their own stakes and their own prerogatives. These they safeguard at the expense of the commonweal. Their interests can and do oppose the popular will, making them potential and, as in Wisconsin, actual enemies of our democratically-constructed regime of law and order.
Founded to combat cronyism, public unions have become rogue interests dedicated to, fed by, and dependent upon back room deals. The dream of a neutral civil service devoted to the national business is gone.
Progressivism stands for responsive government that listens to the taxpayers and nurtures the collective good. It can not stand for patronage. It can not stand by public unions – at least as long as they are ready and willing to defy the democratic process.