Blue modelers are holding their breaths as the Supreme Court gears up for its Monday hearing in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a challenge to the constitutionality of mandatory public sector union fees. They have good reason to be concerned: Experts agree that there is a decent chance that the court will decide in favor of the plaintiff, dealing a severe blow to public sector unions from coast to coast.
Our specialty at Via Meadia is politics, not jurisprudence, so we can’t offer an informed opinion on the First Amendment or federalism arguments that will ultimately determine the outcome of this case. However, as regular readers know, we are deeply skeptical about the wisdom of public sector unions as a matter of public policy. On balance, these organizations have degraded the quality of public services by blocking potentially fruitful reforms to government programs (like school choice) and shielding ineffective employees (like abusive police officers) from accountability. More importantly, by extracting utterly unrealistic pension promises from politicians, public unions have played an integral role in putting many of America’s state and local governments on the road to fiscal crisis.
This tangle of failures is contributing to what we call the blue civil war—the conflict between various Democratic constituencies that is growing more intense as the blue model system of unionized governance starts to decay. As WRM wrote last week, this is the conflict that lies below the surface over the crisis over Rahm Emanuel’s mayoralty in Chicago. The interests of the unionized public workforce that has historically supported the city’s political machine—strong pensions, strong job protections, lifetime employment—are increasingly at odds with the interests of voters—low taxes, high-quality public services, and accountability. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that the unionized public workforce has a different ethnic composition from its voting population, and it is likely to come to a head in more blue-dominated cities and states as the fiscal vise created by pension costs keeps tightening.
That brings us back to Friedrichs. By reducing the power of public unions, the Justices could actually do Democrats a favor by averting similar meltdowns elsewhere, or at least making them swifter and more painless. The breakdown of the blue model is inexorable; in the long-run, state and local governments will simply not be able to afford to offer public employees the type of pension and job security packages that public unions are currently fighting to maintain. The question is whether the transition to a leaner and more efficient public sector will take place slowly and painfully, with crisis after crisis pitting blue constituencies against one another until the whole edifice collapses, or whether reformers can roll back the most untenable elements of the blue model in as orderly and rational a way as possible. Our money is still on the first possibility, but if the court defangs public unions in Friedrichs, the latter is at least somewhat more likely.