Select Page

Union power makes urban reform nearly impossible


By Steven Greenhut, Pacific Research Institute


Pick an urban problem – from ill-functioning public schools to an epidemic of homelessness to a growing crime wave – and there’s one common thread that policymakers rarely acknowledge. In each case, public-employee unions, which are particularly powerful in big cities, make it nearly impossible for local governments to embrace innovative reforms.

It’s well known that private-sector unions imposed higher costs and competitive disadvantages on companies that remained in cities. In a 2010 Cato Journal article, Stephen J. K. Walters explained that unions sparked their transformation “from engines of prosperity into areas afflicted by economic stagnation, chronic poverty, and all the social problems that metastasize in such circumstances.”

But my focus here is on the public sector. In California, collective-bargaining agreements cover around 80 percent of government employees. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision freed public-sector workers from paying union dues even for collective-bargaining work, but that has only affected union membership around the margins. Unions remain the most fearsome political actors at the local level.

Let’s start with an example regarding public education. In Sacramento, the teachers’ union fought to keep schools closed throughout the pandemic. After the schools finally re-opened, the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) staged an eight-day strike until it secured large pay and benefit increases. That’s a handsome reward for a group that helped impose policies that caused severe learning losses over the previous two years.

“For well over 20 years SCTA has, with scorched-earth tactics, influenced policy within an urban, high-poverty school district to such an extent, it has often seemed that SCTA members are running the district,” noted Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. “(T)he interests of adults are always put ahead of the interest of kids in a district where the majority of kids are Black and brown.”

The failure of urban districts in California is widely acknowledged even among some progressive legislators. Some local school district scandals are beyond embarrassing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) finally got rid of its rubber rooms – rooms where teachers deemed unfit for the classroom sit around doing nothing all day while their cases are adjudicated.

Now those teachers collect full pay doing nothing at home, which doesn’t address the real problem: union job protections that make getting rid of incompetent and misbehaving teachers nearly impossible. In late April, the U.S. Department of Education found that LAUSD “failed to provide appropriate education to students with disabilities during the pandemic,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. There are so many examples that it just becomes background noise.

Anyone who is serious about improving the quality of life in cities must address the poor quality of education in those cities. The current situation only exacerbates urban social ills – and serves as a disincentive for young families to move there. It’s one reason – along with crime problems and housing costs – that Western big cities are becoming virtually childless. Urban schools need to improve, but unions resist that needed improvement.

While some urban thinkers recognize the union-school connection, few ever ponder the connection between unions and poor policing strategies. In reality, police unions play a similar role. They make it overly difficult to remove misbehaving officers from the force – and the latter situation sparked urban unrest following the death of George Floyd, where a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for seven minutes after detaining him for allegedly buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Officer Derek Chauvin reportedly had 18 previous complaints filed against him yet remained on the police force.

California has a union-created Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which provides a variety of procedural protections that create a long and convoluted process for removing an overly aggressive officer from the force. The state’s Myers-Milias-Brown Act requires cities and counties to negotiate with unions on myriad issues including police-disciplinary procedures. The resulting local collective-bargaining agreements add even more layers of protection.

“These contracts typically give officers the names of witnesses against them, including fellow officers. That virtually assures that no fellow officers will ever testify against one another – the ramifications for ‘ratting out’ other officers would be severe,” the California Policy Center explained. It noted that local agreements impose strict timeframes on investigations, prevent departments from interrogating officers immediately after an incident and limit penalties for misbehavior.

The result is departments often don’t going through the Byzantine disciplinary process. Unless an officer’s behavior rises to the level of criminal behavior – even then, district attorneys rarely pursue such cases unless they spark public outrage – these officers remain on the force. An investigation in the Bay Area News Group found that at least 80 officers convicted of serious offenses were still working in California public law-enforcement agencies.

Agencies often let officers plead their felonies down to misdemeanors, so they can legally remain an officer. These problems don’t only affect cities, of course, but policing is more of a tinderbox there. In places where a stronger police presence is most vital to preserve order, union policies protect those officers who are most likely to undermine community trust. Unions also sometimes oppose innovative policing strategies that rely less on force.

Plenty of innovative ideas in other areas run up against union recalcitrance, also. The Southern California cities of Calimesa and Placentia started their own fire departments to extricate themselves from the pension costs that were consuming their local budgets. The new departments saved millions of dollars for these small cities, enabling them to invest in parks and hire new officers.

The unions lost those battles, but drafted a new state law that forbade other cities from following suit. It’s a reminder that the financial costs imposed by overly generous union contracts – and bigger cities tend to have the most generous contracts – reduce the resources available to pay for other things. Municipalities continue to struggle with pension debt, which is “crowding out” public services – many of which are central to urban life.

The inflated cost of public services and union work rules have an impact on urban dwellers’ quality of life, as union contracts drive up the cost of building affordable housing and keep transit agencies from developing more flexible routes and better service hours. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Until advocates for urbanism recognize that municipal unions quash innovation and obliterate urban budgets, it will be difficult to improve city services.


Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Free Cities Center.