State government employee union members lately have been complaining that this column picks on them too much.

But the frequent mention of those unions in this space is only proportionate to their huge expense and political influence. Personnel costs are about half the cost of state government when state financial grants to municipalities are counted, since most of those grants pay for municipal government personnel. Municipal government budgets are typically 75 percent personnel costs. Since most state and municipal government expense in Connecticut is personnel, personnel issues can’t be written about often enough in pursuit of accountability in government.

Most people who get involved with politics and government do so for selfish reasons. Of course government employee unions are not unique in this.

But other special interests don’t have the influence the state and municipal employee unions have because of their tens of thousands of members.

Every legislative district has at least hundreds of government employee union members, and some have thousands. As is their right, government employees make themselves heard, even as most people don’t, and elected officials respond mainly to those they hear from.

Few elected officials articulate and pursue the public interest. Indeed, few can even imagine it, and why should they when the public itself doesn’t? As the journalist James Reston wrote, the first rule of politics is the indifference of the majority. So the great majority pays for its political indifference through taxes, inefficient and ineffective government, and corruption.

As the public forfeits its influence, special interests take it, and elected officials, too scared to try to mobilize the public interest, become special-interest tools when they seek re-election.

So to criticize the excessive influence of government employee unions is not to criticize them as much as it is to criticize the elected officials who yield to them so easily and sometimes so grotesquely, as state government did a few months ago by going ahead with $350 million in raises to unionized state employees even as private-sector unemployment was rising sharply and the state’s economy was crashing.

The government employee unions will never acknowledge that what they construe as criticism of them is mainly criticism of elected officials. For the unions prefer to pose as the representatives of people oppressed by their employer, the government. The unions don’t want to be seen as what they have become in Connecticut, the masters of the government. They even presume to pose as the tribunes of the working class generally, as the president of East Windsor’s police union, Sgt. Jeffrey Reimer, did in a letter to the Journal Inquirer the other day.

“It’s because of unions that we have an American middle class,” Reimer wrote, as if there is no difference between public-sector and private-sector unions — as if public-sector unions don’t score their gains through political influence and exemption from market forces, while private-sector unions are subject to market forces and often face employers that have more political influence than they do.

Reimer even seemed to deny that police departments are military organizations, in which unionization is ordinarily forbidden, even though police are armed, use force in the name of the government, and carry military ranks. Collective bargaining ordinarily is not allowed in the military because it would be self-destructive for agencies established to defend the government to be simultaneously organized against it.

But Reimer inadvertently identified the biggest problem with collective bargaining for government employees. That is, he wrote, a government employee union “levels the playing field.”

Exactly. Collective bargaining for government employees brings the whole government and public interest down to equality with a special interest. Having piled binding arbitration of union contracts on top of collective bargaining for state and municipal employees, Connecticut has gone crazy in this respect.

So in the determination of their compensation and working conditions, government employees in Connecticut have power equal to that of the whole public, as represented by elected officials. That’s why the financial cost of collective bargaining for government employees in Connecticut is secondary. The biggest cost is democracy.

 

 Opinion Columnist

Chris Powell has worked for the Journal Inquirer since 1967, first as a reporter, then as an editor, and now as a columnist. He was managing editor from 1974 until retiring from that position in 2018.