published Friday, March 4th, 2011

FDR and public-sector unions

As Tennessee and other states rightly consider ending collective bargaining by public-employee unions, it is useful to recall that even very liberal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw dangers in public-sector unions.

He wrote this on the subject in 1937: “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government ... . [T]he process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

He said a strike by public workers — such as we have seen lately by teachers in Wisconsin — “manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”

As the Los Angeles Times put it recently, “Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a staunch union supporter for the private sector, opposed collective bargaining and the right to strike for federal employees.”

Isn’t it odd that states which today share Democrat President Roosevelt’s skepticism toward public-worker collective bargaining are being accused of a “right-wing attack” on workers?

Neither was the president alone in his views. National Affairs magazine notes that in 1943, a judge on the New York Supreme Court expressed it a slightly different way.

“To tolerate or recognize any combination of civil service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded,” the judge held.

“Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen. To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.”

Government employees never should have been granted collective-bargaining rights. There is nothing radical or extreme about states reining in those “rights.”

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