This column first appeared May 16 on City Journal.
In Jonathan Swift’s classic fable, Gulliver’s Travels, a shipwreck maroons Lemuel Gulliver, the ill-fated crew’s sole survivor, on a remote island (Lilliput) inhabited by people only six-inches tall. Upon reaching shore, the exhausted Gulliver falls asleep, unaware of the island’s tiny occupants. When he awakens, he finds himself helplessly bound by a web of string, with which the puny creatures—called Lilliputians—have tied him to the ground. So it is that highly-focused public employees can come to dominate the much larger group of taxpayers they supposedly serve, especially if—like Gulliver—the taxpayers fail to apprehend the threat until it is too late.
For the purposes of this argument, Texas is Lilliput, and the 27 million residents of the state are Gulliver. The nearly 1.5 million state and local government employees in Texas are the Lilliputians. The Lone Star State has more state and local employees per capita than Illinois or California. Approximately 325,000 of these employees work for the state of Texas; approximately 1.2 million work for local governments (cities, counties, school districts, and other “political subdivisions” of the state).
Texas is a fast-growing right-to-work state with a robust economy. Only 4 percent of the workforce in Texas belongs to a labor union, less than half the national average. Therefore, the common perception is that organized labor is weak in Texas. Moreover, Texas voters are overwhelmingly conservative. Both houses of the Texas legislature have lopsided Republican majorities, and for decades, only Republicans have been elected to statewide office. The “Texas Model” of low taxes, business-friendly regulation, and comprehensive tort-reform legislation is key to the state’s current prosperity, as is its ban on collective bargaining by public employees (a condition that has contributed substantially to California’s economic decline).
Most residents thus assume that Texas has been spared the burden of excessively powerful public unions. This assumption, however, is incorrect: the dirty secret in Texas is that public employees, especially those working in public safety, education, and large cities, are represented by powerful unions that promote the interests of their members at the expense of unsuspecting taxpayers.
How could so many Texans be unaware of this situation? The basic statute (reflecting Texas law, in effect since 1947) holds unambiguously that “An official of the state or of a political subdivision of the state may not recognize a labor organization as the bargaining agent for a group of public employees.” The statute also emphatically declares that “An official of the state or of a political subdivision of the state may not enter into a collective bargaining contract with a labor organization regarding wages, hours, or conditions of employment of public employees” (emphases added).
Cursorily inspected, the law in Texas seems clear. Unfortunately, the statutory ban on public-sector unionization is subject to little-known “exceptions,” enacted decades later, for certain categories of politically-influential government employees, beginning with police officers and fire fighters. Thus, the Texas legislature quietly exempted public-safety employees from the unionization ban, under certain circumstances. As a result, police officers and fire fighters in Texas often unionize and negotiate rich compensation and benefit arrangements with the political subdivisions that employ them. As noted in a comprehensive report issued by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, State Labor-Management Policy and the Texas Model, “Largely as a consequence of the local public-safety loophole in Texas’ ban on exclusive union bargaining in the government sector, firefighter and police compensation packages in the state’s large cities include many costly perks one might expect to see in a Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York union contract.” In fact, Houston and Dallas are tottering on the brink of insolvency due to overly-generous (and badly-underfunded) pension plans for unionized public safety employees, a predictable outcome when powerful government-employee unions “bargain” with the very city officials they helped to elect.
A second loophole in Texas law, enacted in 2005, allows cities with a population of at least 1.5 million people (which includes only Houston, though San Antonio and Dallas are getting closer) to “enter into a mutual agreement” with an exclusive bargaining representative regarding “wages, salaries, rates of pay, hours of work, [and] other terms and conditions of employment.” Houston’s taxpayers did not lobby the legislature to give city employees more clout with which to extract higher wages, more generous benefits, and greater job security. In a textbook display of public-choice theory, the special interest group that stood to benefit most—here, the union affiliated with AFSCME and SEIU, representing Houston’s dues-paying city employees—wielded its political clout to create an obscure loophole giving itself special privileges, and even more power.
In the sneakiest power-grab of all, Texas’s teachers circumvent the ban on public- sector bargaining by persuading large urban school districts to adopt “exclusive consultation” policies that allow only one designated organization to “meet and confer” with the school board about educational issues and employment conditions. Invariably, the “designated organization” just happens to be a labor “association” representing the teachers, who account for a large percentage of local government employees. School districts in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and San Antonio have adopted these policies. The TPPF report concludes that “Even though the school board is supposed to make all final decisions, the decisions often closely resemble what teacher union officials have advocated.” This is de facto collective bargaining, in contravention of Texas law.
Like the Lilliputians who entrapped Gulliver, public-employee unions in Texas have been busy: lobbying the legislature; electing local officials disposed to doing their bidding; enriching union members at the expense of tax increases and diminished public services; amassing campaign war chests from union dues; contributing $1.6 million to state lawmakers in Texas during the 2016 election cycle; controlling many urban school districts; and building municipal political machines. Like Gulliver, Texas taxpayers have been sound asleep, oblivious to the incessant activity gradually rendering them helpless.
When Republican legislators make even tepid efforts to resist the unions’ agenda, they are foiled by GOP House Speaker Joe Straus, who maintains his leadership through an unusual alliance between House Democrats and a small number of moderate Republicans aligned with Texas’s public-employee unions. Though Texas is hardly a pro-union state, due to Straus’s machinations, even basic protections of taxpayers—such as forbidding the government to collect union dues from public employees’ paychecks—have consistently failed to pass. This is tantamount to political acquiescence, even though similar bans on dues collection have been enacted in far less conservative states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
To see what happens when public-employee unions grab too much power, look to California, where, as author Steven Greenhut reports, government employees are grossly over-paid relative to their private-sector counterparts, retirement benefits for civil servants are piratical, overtime is paid in excess of employees’ already-inflated annual salaries, and even low-level positions such as life guards can get paid more than six figures. In California, public employee unions are so strong that legislation they’re backing to deny public access to the details of labor negotiations until they are completed is advancing in the state legislature. Public-employee unions are one of the biggest donors to political campaigns, ensuring their continued dominance.
Unlike the private sector, where market conditions and competition constrain labor negotiations, the allocation of finite taxpayer resources is a quintessentially political decision. Allowing one faction to rig the political decision-making process in its favor, without transparency or consensus, is to sabotage representative self-government. Texans (and affected taxpayers in other states) must become alert: as they slumber, a well-organized foe is intently constructing a web of bondage, from which it may be impossible to escape.