Should there be workers’ unions in government?

Lest there be any doubt, I am pro-union. My father was in a union; I was in two unions, , and I feel that we and our employers benefited by the existence of those unions.

Unquestionably, in the absence of a union, most employers hold a much stronger hand than do most individual employees.

Yes, there are exceptions. Some employees are so valuable that the employer would lose more than the employee would lose, if the employee were to be fired. But these truly are exceptions.

How the Chicago Teachers' Strike Extends Beyond Schools | Time
Unions make many different executive demands.

How unions benefit employees is clear — better pay, benefits, and working conditions — but less obvious is how unions benefit employers.

One surprising example is professional sports. While unions help athletes make enormous salaries, they also put a lid on total team salaries.

Without that lid, salaries would explode to the point of bankrupting teams, thereby killing the golden-egg goose.

Unions often train workers and insist on certain levels of personnel and production quality. Unions often fight bigotry (though the reverse sometimes has been true).

On balance, unions are good for labor and for management (though management sometimes fights them).

But are unions appropriate for government agencies?

Management has several weapons at hand: Salaries, working conditions, benefits, etc. Workers have one big weapon: Quitting. Unions use strikes and the threat of strikes, as their ultimate bargaining tool.

Using that ultimate tool, unions have the power to demand many changes in business operations, often to the point of functioning as a quasi-management.

The title question then resolves around another question: Should a government union ever be allowed to strike?

The question is especially relevant now, as expressed by the following article:

Labor activists want to reform police unions. Union leaders don’t want to talk about it.

The killing of George Floyd has launched calls for reforming police forces nationwide, as well as reforming the unionsthat may have allowed the officers involved in Floyd’s death to keep working even after prior complaints.

But the leaders of major unions that represent those police unions have been reluctant to talk about reform — and are “tiptoeing” around police brutality altogether.

After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “the AFL-CIO began to talk more openly about racism in the police force,” Alexia Fernández Campbell writes.

Yet both then and today, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO labor federation, has avoided placing any blame on individual officers.

“Police unions have written labor contracts that bar law enforcement agencies across the country from immediately interrogating or firing officers after egregious acts of misconduct,” Fernández Campbell notes.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin “had at least 17 complaints filed against him but never got more than a written reprimand,” leading advocates to call for reforming police unions or abolishing them altogether, Fernández Campbell continues.

Imagine: A police officer theoretically could throw hand grenades into a filled, 20,000 seat arena, and because of unions, no enforcement official could even question him, much less fire him.

Or imagine this: Because the police are the civilian version of the military, similar rules logically would apply. Would you vote to unionize the military? Would you want a union to dictate military strategy?

Government institutions are not like businesses. Generally they are vital institutions having a profound effect on the public.

If elementary school teachers go on strike, who suffers? Should a union have the power to dictate curriculum, teaching methods, staffing, class size?

If firefighters would exercise the power to go on strike, who suffers? What should a union be able to direct?

If postal workers would go on strike, who would suffer? What should a union be able to direct?

If the police were to go on strike, who would suffer?

Should unions have executive power over these vital institutions?

We already have seen far too many examples of police unions defending the most horrendous crimes by police officers.

The irony is that police unions actually can weaken police officers by reducing public trust. Much of the public has come to believe that the police do not defend them, but rather care only for their own little blue clique.

When the public doesn’t trust the police, the public won’t cooperate with the police. The police then find themselves not only battling criminals, but battling the public at large.

When a police officer believe that he is unloved by the public, this is one emotional result:

Record number of US police officers died by suicide in 2019

A record number of current or former police officers died by suicide last year, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that works to reduce stigmas tied to mental health issues for those in law enforcement.

When a government worker — any government worker — whose job generally is to help the public, feels that the public is his/her primary enemy, the job-stress can interfere with job performance.

You should have empathy for the often underpaid, overworked government employees, but you also should have concern for the overall public. A teacher strike hits at the heart of our nation, as would a firefighter strike, a postal strike, a police strike, a soldier strike, etc.  . . .

I submit that no government workers should be allowed to unionize. Their work is too vital for the nation, to allow for union executive control.

Government unions are bad for the public and bad for the workers.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

Monetary Sovereignty Twitter: @rodgermitchell Search #monetarysovereignty Facebook: Rodger Malcolm Mitchell …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..


The most important problems in economics involve:

  1. Monetary Sovereignty describes money creation and destruction.
  2. Gap Psychology describes the common desire to distance oneself from those “below” in any socio-economic ranking, and to come nearer those “above.” The socio-economic distance is referred to as “The Gap.”

Wide Gaps negatively affect poverty, health and longevity, education, housing, law and crime, war, leadership, ownership, bigotry, supply and demand, taxation, GDP, international relations, scientific advancement, the environment, human motivation and well-being, and virtually every other issue in economics. Implementation of Monetary Sovereignty and The Ten Steps To Prosperity can grow the economy and narrow the Gaps:

Ten Steps To Prosperity:

1. Eliminate FICA

2. Federally funded Medicare — parts A, B & D, plus long-term care — for everyone

3. Social Security for all or a reverse income tax

4. Free education (including post-grad) for everyone

5. Salary for attending school

6. Eliminate federal taxes on business

7. Increase the standard income tax deduction, annually. 

8. Tax the very rich (the “.1%”) more, with higher progressive tax rates on all forms of income.

9. Federal ownership of all banks

10.Increase federal spending on the myriad initiatives that benefit America’s 99.9% 

The Ten Steps will grow the economy and narrow the income/wealth/power Gap between the rich and the rest.


11 thoughts on “Should there be workers’ unions in government?

  1. From the 6/7/20 Chicago Tribune:

    Chicago’s police union contract thwarts reform
    By Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg

    Here are two actions Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the General Assembly and the state’s attorney general in Illinois should take immediately before more lives are lost at the hands of law enforcement.

    First, lawmakers should amend the state law that provides civil service protections to peace officers. Then the attorney general should go to court to amend the federal consent decree to eliminate its subordination to collective bargaining.

    Collective bargaining agreements — and the broad scope of bargaining allowed in Illinois — are major barriers to better policing. In effect, the state gives unelected unions the power to write the law.

    In Chicago, police accountability is bargained away by the mayor’s office at the behest of the Fraternal Order of Police. The new president of the police union , John Catanzara, was the subject of 50 misconduct complaints , according to the Citizens Police Data Project, 10 of them sustained, and is believed to be the first FOP president to serve while stripped of his police powers. Illinois law empowers this person to horse trade with the mayor over proper police discipline.

    The Police Accountability Task Force, headed by then-private citizen Lori Lightfoot, detailed these ills in 2016. The task force found that provisions in collective bargaining agreements discourage citizens from coming forward with complaints, make it easy for officers to lie in official reports, require officials to ignore and destroy evidence of misconduct and make it harder for officers to report misconduct.

    Things are different in other states — even heavily Democratic states with strong unions.

    In California, the state’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights provides police officers the civil rights any citizen deserves, but the law does not subordinate itself to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining agreements with police unions deal only with compensation and benefits.

    Likewise, the federal consent decree that made such a difference in reforming the Los Angeles Police Department was not trumped by an unworkable collective bargaining agreement.

    Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are co-authors of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities.”


    It’s like trying to make a lion your house pet by removing his teeth and claws. It’s better simply not to make a lion your house pet. The unionization of the police makes as much sense as the unionization of the military.


  2. Certainly, government is a significantly different situation than business – but are you really saying that government employees should have no tools to address the imbalance of power that management has?


    1. Marc, you make a good point.

      Let me ask you your question, reframed: Should members of the armed forces have tools to address the imbalance of power that their superiors have? If so, what should those tools be?

      Your ideas are welcome.



  3. Sir, I read your column everyday and love your economics, but when it comes to politics you lose me. I worked for the Cook County Government for 27 years and retired at a salary of 62k with a generous pension. 62k is a nice way to live a modest middle class life without being able to save much money. If not for the union, I guarantee that my 62k would have been 40k with little or no pension and poor health care.

    I would have also been at the mercy of a bunch of sociopaths who could fire you willy-nilly and not have any recourse whatsoever. Before we were unionized these were patronage jobs and every time a new political administration came in you were in serious jeopardy of losing your job to their supporters friends and family.

    I would pity the government worker were it not for the union.


    1. Anthony, I empathize with you.

      Cook is my favorite county. I have lived there for 85 years. They should have renamed it Crook County because historically, it must be the most dishonest county in America. Simply has to be.

      I don’t know how you were hired, but if it wasn’t because of patronage you surely would be a miracle man. It is the county of “I don’t see nobody who nobody sent.”

      I’m glad for you that you had a nice job and now a nice retirement, but puleeeze don’t use Cook County as a “good” example of unions. It is the home of the “nine guys leaning on shovels and one guy sitting in the truck.”

      Mike Royko made his living, and became nationally famous, exposing Cook County illegalities that cost taxpayers billions.

      No private company on earth could afford the inefficiencies and criminality that existed in Cook County. The unions only made it worse, because they legalized the criminality.

      The combination of crooked politicians in cahoots with crooked unions made it impossible for any would-be reformer. That combination is like a steel wall, with all the good money inside and the public left outside.

      Cook County as your example? LOL


      1. Wow, pretty insulting to blame the rank and file county employees for the excessive corruption of the executives in Cook County over the years. By your logic, those workers don’t deserve a fair wage and decent benefits because the executive administrators are corrupt.

        I used Cook County as an example because I worked there and believe that I served all of my positions at the county in an exemplary manner. Those workers leaning on a shovel was a story going back decades, and they were employees of the city not the county just to set the record straight, not that it really matters.

        When I left the county department I worked under, we were understaffed, overworked, and under a lot of pressure to not screw up since it involved the criminal justice sector. Cook County rank and file are just as deserving as any other government worker from another county or state or municipality.

        My reasons for government workers being unionized was totally valid and you deflected it with some nonsense about “nine guys leaning on shovels,” which was a news story from 35 years ago. At least you could come up with something in this decade!

        My co-workers with a few exceptions worked long and hard to provide services that were promised to the public. I nor they have nothing to apologize for. Government wages and benefits should set the tone for all workers in the private sector to aspire to.

        We are the example. Unionized workers in the last 40 years have gone from about 35% of the working population down to 10% and maybe less. Should we lower that % even more?

        With all due respect, de-unionizing government workers is a bad policy, and it especially injures minorities who are represented much more than they are in the private sector. All workers, private and public, need the protection of fairness in the work place. Trust me, there wouldn’t be much fairness without a union. Just common sense.


        1. You’re right. And I was wrong to talk about criminality in Cook County, since that isn’t the point. It’s just difficult to talk about Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government without mentioning criminality.

          (For those of you who don’t know Cook County, it’s a place where a dead man — John Stroger — appointed his son Todd Stroger to be County Board President. How does a dead man appoint anyone to anything? Only in Cook County.)

          But, as you said, that is irrelevant to the question of unions.

          The real problem with government unions, which I had stated in the post, is the ability to strike. Government agencies operate vital functions for a community. When they strike, they cause irreparable harm.

          The Chicago Teachers Union strikes are an example of a few thousand people paralyzing a city of nearly 3 million.

          I gave the example of the military being able to strike. Unthinkable. The same with the police, the water department, the transit authority, etc.

          Absent the strike and the taking over of executive functions (like who can be hired and fired) I have no objection to unions. But that would reduce union power, so the point may be moot.

          Finally, if 90% of employees are not unionized, the does seem to reduce the need for unions, doesn’t it?


          1. “Irreparable Harm?” “Paralyzing a city?” LOL people are resilient, I think your perception of government strikes is quite exaggerated. I assume you do know the history of unions in the United States? How they helped build the middle class to epic proportions? And you are aware of how the wealthy class and their political soldiers have been on a mission to bust unions especially starting around the 1980’s with huge success? Did you also notice that wage stagnation set in right about that time and continues to this day? Perhaps this is why workers are starting to organize once again? We need not go back to the early 1900’s when workers were treated like dogs. Unions weren’t just about making more money. Those people died in the streets in protest of the extreme inhumane conditions that they had to endure in an industrializing capitalistic economic system. You have heard of Amazon, I presume? Your stance about unions is classic neo-liberal ideology. I’m very surprised that you would think that way. Maybe you’re just playing devil’s advocate?
            Love your economics. I believe it to be correct. MMT mostly supports your positions so I’m pretty confident this is how it works. It’s striking that almost no one on the street has any knowledge of what it means for a government like the USA to be a monetarily sovereign nation. Your teaching of it is by far the most understandable. When you are told lies about government spending and government debt all of your life it is discombobulating to learn of something so contrary like MS. But I got it, mostly thanks to you! Now get your damn politics straight, it’s never to late LOL!!


          2. It might have helped if you had read the opening lines of the post. I am not opposed to unions. In fact, I very much favor unions. My own father was a union man. Your discussion about the value of unions is preaching to the choir.

            I am opposed only to government agency unions.


  4. I did read your opening post and acknowledged it. However, it seemed to me that you had a change of mind when you stated, “finally, if 90% of employees are not unionized, that does seem to reduce the need for unions, doesn’t it?”
    Thus, much of what was in my reply was related to your above statement.
    Seemed to contradict your opening post, eh?


    1. I myself belonged to two unions, AFTRA and SAG. The point of the post was directed at government unions. The last sentence merely states a fact. Not all unions are beneficial. Many have had dark histories. Nevertheless, I favor unions except for government jobs.


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