Labor Unions Against the Public Interest

The folly of monopoly unionism (“collective bargaining”) in government is most evident when labor unions strike. Hundreds of thousands of San Francisco area residents are currently having their lives disrupted by union actions against the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. BART’s unions want higher wages:

The unions, which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff, want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years. BART said train operators and station agents in the unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually.

Bloomberg says that BART workers receive annual benefits averaging $50,800, so these folks are well-paid. It is true that every worker in America would like higher pay. The difference is that most of us don’t have special government-created powers to cause city-wide damage when we ask for a raise.

Most Americans compete in the marketplace, which limits their power and encourages the provision of low-cost, high-quality services. But most government services are enforced monopolies, which breed inefficiency. Monopoly unions compound the inefficiencies, and lead to the sort of selfish, anti-consumer behavior this strike represents. By the way, the same thing happened to BART in 1997 “when a six-day shutdown jammed freeways and saddled workers with lengthier commutes.” 

Strikes are not the only problem caused by unions in government. Unions push up operating costs and generally reduce service quality. A Washington Post editor yesterday discussed union problems in D.C.’s Metro system after a conversation with the system’s manager, Richard Sarles:

If I had my druthers,’ [Sarles] said, he would hire station managers based on ‘the ability to operate in a customer-friendly way.’ But, Sarles said, Metro’s collective bargaining agreement requires him to promote bus drivers to train operators and station managers. In fact, his spokesman said, mediocre bus drivers may get promoted more quickly because ‘we need to get you from behind the wheel.’ And if someone does a great job as station manager, ‘I can’t recognize that financially,’ Sarles said. 

So here’s the “manager” of a government agency who doesn’t even have the authority to manage his own workforce. It is ironic that Metro and BART are called “public services,” but managers of private businesses are better able to actually serve the public. 

Here’s another curious thing: liberals and environmentalists are eager to get Americans out of their cars and into mass transit, but their left-of-center friends—the unions—work against those goals. Unions push up the costs of transit and reduce service quality, which encourages people to stay in their cars. Furthermore, cars won’t go on strike against commuters like government workers will. 

About the current strike, BART spokesman Rick Rice said: “About 400,000 commuters use BART every day in the San Francisco Bay area … The public doesn’t deserve to be punished.” He’s right, but citizens are being punished everyday in cities across the nation because of the misguided idea of union-dominated, government-run transit. 

You may be interested to know that before the 1960s, most urban rail and bus transit in America was provided by the private sector. So we certainly don’t need labor unions in mass transit—and we may not even need the government. 

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