During a coffee break chat at a conference the other day, a federal manager in the technology domain told me he was a federal union member. But he couldn’t remember which union. But, he said, he felt the bargaining agreement helped keep his work stable in spite of agency executive management.
During the same conference, at cocktails the evening before it got underway, another fed who specializes in acquisition informed me, matter-of-factly, “You’re being pilloried on Reddit.” He showed me some comments on his phone. They concerned last week’s column on the White House return-to-the-office memo. Some people read it and concluded I am anti-telework. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said to the collegiate me in answer to a different question, “What am I, crazy?”
To the Reddit pilloriers I say, be my guest. But the opinions I am about to decribe to you are not my own, just one I think the federal audience ought to know about. Don’t shoot the messenger on Reddit.
The opinions: Public employee unions not only promote waste, inefficiency, and lack of accountability, they are also unconstitutional. That they corrupt democracy. And ought to go away. This conclusion belongs to Philip K. Howard, an attorney and chairman of Common Good. The non-partisan group has some familiar faces on its advisory board. Many them have dealt with organized public workforces; many have supported them. But, no, it’s not another Center for American Progress.
Howard’s book, “NOT Accountable,” lays out his arguments in clear, breezy prose. If you are a council president, local representative, or a member of one of the federal unions, it’s worth reading. Again, I’m not endorsing it. I’ve also read “Das Kapital” and “Atlas Shrugged” and I don’t endorse them either.
He points out an important distinction between federal unions and all other public sector unions. You can’t bargain over pay and benefits. Several states’ and cities’ pension and health benefits obligations have rendered them essentially bankrupt in the actuarial sense. For example, the California pension system has cash to cover something like 70% of its more than $600 billion in future liabilities.
Not that the federal government is really solvent, but its fiscal unsustainability — GAO’s word — results from factors other than the cost of federal employees pay and benefits.
Howard basically offers two arguments. He said public employee unions have forced rigid, inflexible and unaccountable government. And that because politicians are unwilling or unable to take on unions, the best recourse for dismantling unions is to press the legal case that they’re unconstitutional. When unions bargain with politically-appointed or elected agency heads, Howard says, you’ve essentially got mutually-reinforcing political entities bargaining without any particular interest in the taxpaying public.
He relates an irony first described by political scientist Richard DiSalvo. The first public union took root in New York City after World War II, when Mayor Robert Wagner sought to eliminate, once and for all, the influence of Tammany Hall. That is, to replace a patronage system with a more professional civil service system. Although by my reading of event, Tammany was effectively buried as early as the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. And, of course, the federal civil service system as we know it now dates to the late 19th century.
Howard is no libertarian or union-buster. In fact, he told me he doesn’t consider himself a conservative. He worked with the Clinton administration on the reinvention of government project management. In an interview airing next week, he criticizes the Schedule F gambit, partly because of how it could lead to arbitrary and capricious firings of federal employees for political reasons.
Howard directs most of his critique to city employee unions, citing as example some of the outlandish provisions in the New York City teachers union contract, which runs hundreds of pages. Or police unions such as the one in Minneapolis that for years protected officers, one of whom, with a record of complaints, killed George Floyd.
But even in the federal sector he asked whether some more reasonable medium between arbitrary firing and a complex grievance process if a supervisor makes a note in your file.
Ultimately, Howard is hoping an administration will issue an executive order for civil service reform, with the expectation it will face challenge and reach the Supreme Court.
I’ll repeat my earlier admonition a third time. I neither endorse nor repudiate what this books says. For every purported union-caused absurdity I’m sure there’s an example of management misfire. As a private sector union member myself, I will say that even solid union supporters will find “NOT Accountable” provocative yet maybe dotted with ideas to help the next round of negotiations.