A formal organization of U.S. Marines circulating an email that implied (even as a joke) the use of violence as a way of accomplishing a political goal against a member of Congress would be dealt with in very severe ways by the officers and politicians in charge of the U.S. armed forces. Civilian authority over this group of government employees is considered nearly absolute in the American tradition. Yet, consider a recent scandal involving John Barnes, the president of the Warren Police Officer’s Association, who is in hot water over an email he sent out supporting a recall effort targeting Michigan State Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica. The MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter, a subscription news service for primarily Lansing insiders, reports that the email said the following:
"We intend to walk into Lansing after the summer break and ask the Republicans who have been so eagerly screwing us, 'who's next?' If we cannot earn their respect we will do what we have always done; hit it with a flashlight until we gain compliance."
When asked about his choice of words, Barnes told MIRS that he was sorry for any offense taken, and that the language was just an example of “cop speak” that was not meant for the general public. He then further qualified his apology:
"I will refrain from using inflammatory language as soon as those attacking me and my fellow police officers refrain from using the same."
The police union boss’ frank chatter demonstrates the inherent threat to the health of representative government that ensues when taxpayers grant collective bargaining rights to government employee unions. At a minimum, this irresponsible so-called “cop speak” from a high-ranking official in the union could be a damning bit of evidence the next time a Warren cop faces a police brutality charge.
But at a deeper level, it raises serious ethical and existential questions about whether taxpayers should allow any public servant to serve more than one master while on the job. Armed with public dollars, deadly weapons, and a monopoly on the legal use of force, should police officers be allowed to collectively recognize loyalty to a leadership other than the rule of law and the community that pays their salaries?
Lifting the question up a notch on the public security ladder, it is a settled question that it would be dangerous to allow the U.S. military to be unionized. So serious and ingrained is the professionalization of the American military that it is almost totally unacceptable for them to collectively participate in any form of domestic political activity. Obviously, as individuals, they retain the right to vote and speak their mind outside the job. But unlike some less fortunate nations, there are not and never have been organized political movements within the U.S. military. Active duty generals do not run for public office with the assistance of the troops under their command; and soldiers do not organize to influence the composition of the Congress that sets their pay, nor the occupant of the White House who can send them into harm’s way.
And for good reason: If the people with the biggest government-issued guns ever get in the habit of influencing who their Commander in Chief should be, then the master/servant relationship between free Americans and their government will begin to slip dramatically, with a military dictatorship at the very end of the slide.
Yet if the very justification for a government union is to improve the working conditions of the public employee, then who could be in greater need of protection than a government employee whose job classification allows for them to be deliberately ordered into actions that are likely to cause death and dismemberment?
Apologists for police unions will argue that their role is essential because of the uniquely dangerous work that cops do. But this reasoning explodes when applied to what can often be more dangerous military work. Imagine: “Sorry, Mr. President, but the Army can’t help out with Omaha Beach. Our union president says that’s an OSHA violation …”
The most potent and professional armed forces on Earth are staffed with a steady stream of qualified volunteers signing up for the job despite not a historical whiff of being able to count on unions or political influence to protect them. And unlike police officers or any other civilian, a solider isn’t usually free to quit the job and work somewhere else the next day.
What of other public employees?
Where soldiers are charged with defending civil society, the role of public education is supposed to be to protect the future of it. If those holding democracy’s guns shouldn’t be dividing their loyalty between the public good and their union bosses, then what of those holding democracy’s school children?
If an email from the police union boss boasting of flashlight beatings against politicians who don’t comply with the union’s wishes raises questions about the risk of government recognition for cop unions, then consider an email sent back in March from Iris Salters, the union boss in charge of the Michigan Education Association. It asked the vast majority of the state’s public school teachers to vote on the following question:
“Do you give MEA the authority to initiate crisis activities up to and including job action?”
Elaborating further, it said:
“Let me be clear on what this vote means. It authorizes MEA to engage in significant activities — up to and including a work stoppage — that will increase the pressure on our legislators.”
Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. Ms. Salters evaded questions regarding whether she was asking for permission to initiate a “crisis” that included breaking the law, saying it would be up to her membership to decide. What is not in question is that the union boss was willing to have her members engage in “significant activities” that would deliberately impede delivery of the very public service that they are paid to provide.
Unlike the union boss in charge of the state’s largest teacher union, a private labor leader involved in a dispute with General Motors cannot shut down Ford or Chrysler. Even a total United Auto Workers walkout would not shut down the non-union auto plants that now account for a large share of the domestic automotive assembly workforce. The discipline of the marketplace means that a private sector union must weigh the consequences of customers taking their dollars and seeking alternative options.
No such restriction operates on a public sector union. Whether it is cops and the use of force or teachers and the education of school kids, the jobs are in government-granted monopolies, backed up with financing that comes from mandatory taxation. The ‘customers’ – the taxpayers – have no alternatives. When government unions use their monopoly position to threaten politicians, they are collectively taking action against the very public that is forced to pay their wages.
Despite the important work done by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, it is clear why government should never grant collective bargaining power to a labor union or any other political authority structure in the military that could compete for the loyalty of the public servants who defend the nation. Likewise, given the critical nature of their jobs and the large sums of tax dollars expended on them, why shouldn’t the same standard apply to teachers and cops?