US Senate should leave labor policy to the states

Seventeen years ago, one of my predecessors as governor of Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder, signed into law a statute explicitly prohibiting public officials at the state and local levels from recognizing government union officials as employees’ “exclusive” bargaining agents. Consequently, teacher, firefighter and other government union officials in the Old Dominion, unlike their counterparts in most other states, may not legally wield monopoly-bargaining power.  

Union monopoly bargaining, or collective-bargaining, forces members and nonmembers alike to allow the agents of a single union to speak for them on all matters concerning their pay, benefits and working conditions. Taxpayers and all citizens who depend on public services can be harmed by productivity-killing negotiation practices.

For example, in jurisdictions with public sector union monopoly bargaining, government union-promoted work rules frequently make it almost impossible for police supervisors to schedule officers to work when and where they are needed during their regular eight-hour shifts. Consequently, taxpaying individuals and businesses rack up enormous overtime costs.  In the current tough economic climate, government union resistance to changing contract-scheduling restrictions and other work rules has led to major layoffs of police in cities such as Oakland.

Virginia’s ban on public-sector monopoly bargaining, adopted with bipartisan legislative support and signed by a Democratic governor during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has helped avoid the onerous tax rates and public service cutbacks that have plagued employers and employees in California, New York and other states with heavily unionized government services.

This labor policy is an important reason why Virginia’s business climate has repeatedly been ranked as one of the nation’s best. We value, support and honor our public servants. As a former prosecutor, I can say from personal experience that our police officers, firefighters, deputies, corrections officers and others work tirelessly, and we salute their hard work and courage by handling contract issues with these men and women as individuals, not as anonymous members of a monolithic bloc.  

In Virginia, our public safety leadership values these public servants, and those who serve the citizens in these important positions have a strong voice. Also, Virginia has professional organizations and associations in which membership is voluntary. These groups represent the interests of these public servants and do an effective job of advocating collective interests without all the problems associated with unions.

Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid does not believe Virginians — or residents of any of the other 49 states — should be free to set their own labor policies for their state and local public servants. On Tuesday, Reid introduced a new, slightly modified version of legislation he has been pushing for years, the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act.

The measure would override state statutes, court precedents and popular votes prohibiting or regulating the imposition of union monopoly bargaining on state and local public safety departments. It would force countless police officers, firefighters and EMTs to accept as their “advocate,” and as their monopoly-bargaining agent, a union they never voted for and want nothing to do with. Individuals would be placed under the wing of a large union, whether they wanted to be or not.

Americans who are not attuned to the ways of Washington, D.C., might suppose that, in the wake of this year’s elections, Reid would now back away from mandating union control over public safety professionals or, at a minimum, postpone consideration until the new, duly elected Congress is seated in January.

However, as things stand, Reid appears poised to try to ram through what is a radical attack on state prerogatives, along with a trampling of the individual freedom of state and local public employees, in the middle of a lame-duck Senate session, with the help of a number of defeated or retiring senators who will not be back in January.

That is not fair to states, voters or our dedicated public servants.

Bob McDonnell is the governor of Virginia.

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