SEIU Health Care Protest

Despite mounting state budget crises and growing public discontent with government unions, the House of Representatives added the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act to the Afghanistan war spending bill. What does this bill have to do with the war or public safety? Nothing.

The bill would be more accurately named the Public Safety Employer Coercion Act. It would force state and local governments to collectively bargain with police officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel—whether or not collective bargaining would improve local public safety. This will directly affect the 21 states that do not already do this and would force states with collective bargaining to rewrite their codes to comply with the federal standard.

A federal mandate would strip away state sovereignty over labor relations. For many states, public sector collective bargaining makes little sense. Under this bill, they would have to do so anyway.

The consequences can be disastrous. Paying unionized government employees more means less money for everything else. Overly generous compensation for government employees contributed significantly to the budget crises in New York, New Jersey, and California. In response to ballooning state payrolls, states must cut spending in other areas or raise taxes.

Even the frequently liberal Washington Post recognized this when it examined the fate of Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia. The two counties have striking similarities—they are both Washington, D.C., suburbs, have populations around 1 million, are similar in wealth and demographics, and have top-notch public school systems. But they differ in one important respect: Montgomery County collectively bargains with its public employees while Fairfax does not. This accounts for another difference between the counties—Montgomery is struggling with a $1 billion deficit in a $4.3 billion spending plan while Fairfax has balanced its budget.

As former Montgomery county councilwoman Nancy Dacek told the Washington Examiner, “The unions are too powerful; there’s no question. … Their demands are just too high.” Montgomery spends 80 cents of every dollar on pay and benefits for public employees, making cutbacks hard when the recession hit. Fairfax—unencumbered by collective bargaining —could respond with greater flexibility.

States that do collectively bargain typically resolve contract disputes through arbitration—police and firefighters obviously cannot go on strike. However, arbitrators can hand down ridiculous awards.

In Boston, in response to the deaths of two possibly impaired firefighters, city officials wanted to mandate random drug testing. The firefighters’ union brought the proposal to arbitration during contract renegotiations. The arbitrator agreed the firefighters would undergo drug testing along with a 19 percent raise that would cost taxpayers $74 million.

Mandatory unionization could also cripple volunteer fire departments. Firefighters unions despise volunteer fire departments because they do the job of professional firefighters for free. Firefighter unions regularly impose fines on any of their members who volunteer off-duty. But professional firefighters typically form the core of volunteer fire departments. As my colleague Rob Bluey explains, unionizing more fire departments will make it harder for volunteer fire departments to get the volunteers they need to stay open.

Given the potential drawbacks, why would Congress force state and local governments to unionize their police and fire departments? Special interest pressure. Organized labor did not get card check, its most cherished legislative goal. Some in Congress want to give the labor movement mandatory state and local unionization as a consolation prize.

Congress should allow states and local governments to decide for themselves whether to collectively bargain. Having bureaucrats in Washington dictate across-the-board rules is not the answer.

Co-authored by Bethany Aronhalt. Aronhalt is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: