Congress is debating legislation meant to address police misconduct along with a further aid package for state and local governments struggling with budget deficits. Whether those bills pass or not, the states can address both issues themselves with one reform: repealing collective bargaining for public workers. That alone would increase public worker accountability and ease budget pressures by reducing labor costs.
State and local workforces are heavily unionized, with 39% of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, compared to just 7% in the private sector. Critically, large majorities of public school teachers and police in big‐city departments are covered by collective bargaining.
The public sector union share does vary widely, from 73% in New York to 10% in North Carolina based on differing state collective bargaining rules. Many states, such as New York, mandate collective bargaining for most workers. At the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina and Virginia completely ban collective bargaining in government.
Union rules like these have consequences. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer with a history of misconduct highlights the lack of accountability in some police departments. Collective bargaining plays a role because those agreements create barriers to disciplining and firing bad officers. In the wake of Floyd’s death, the mayor of Minneapolis said that the “elephant in the room” on police reform is “the police union, the contract associated with that union, and then the arbitration that ultimately is necessary.”
Even when bad officers are fired, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that it is common under collective bargaining for arbitrators to reinstate them. In Minnesota, “officers who are fired for misconduct or charged with criminal behavior often end up back on the force,” the analysis found.
Further, both Walter Olson and Rachel Greszler each summarize research showing that collective bargaining is associated with higher rates of police misconduct and bureaucratic rules that undermine accountability. Greszler notes that labor contracts “often include provisions that obstruct discipline, erase discipline records, and insert elevated standards of review that shield rogue police officers from justice.”
Similar problems are common in other public sector jobs. Poorly performing public school teachers, for example, are notoriously difficult to fire in union‐dominated states. Nationwide, the layoff and firing rate of state and local workers is only one‐third the rate in the private sector.
Labor unions also impact state and local budgets. Half of total state‐local spending of $3 trillion a year is for public worker compensation, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data. So even modest wage and benefit cuts would be a big help for states tackling budget deficits, but union contracts often stand in the way.
Academic studies also find that unionization pushes up public sector compensation. For example, Bahman Bahrami and colleagues found that unionization increases local government wage rates by 15% and state government wage rates by 11%. Sarah Anzia and Terry Moe found that unionization increases wage rates for fire department employees by 9% and benefits by 25%, and it increases police wage rates by 10% and benefits by 21%.
Collective bargaining creates powerful lobby groups that push for higher overall spending. In a statistical analysis, the Heritage Foundation found that states with public sector collective bargaining spent at least $600 more per capita than states without it. Thus, if New York adopted Virginia’s ban on collective bargaining, it could save about $12 billion a year, which is 15% of the state’s general fund budget.
The Washington Post’s Charles Lane noted that while collective bargaining may help public workers, “it has also made state and local government bigger, costlier and more complex — and more beholden, politically, to its own workforce.”
Public workers should be free to join voluntary associations of teachers, police officers, and other professional groups, as they do in North Carolina and Virginia. But collective bargaining creates rigid monopoly structures that are unneeded because public workers already enjoy strong civil service protections.
The nation’s first elected black governor, Doug Wilder, signed into law Virginia’s public sector ban on collective bargaining in 1993. Wilder was also a conservative on budget matters. Virginia is going to need some new statues to replace the ones taken down — how about Wilder?