The Anarchy of 'More': Public Union Avarice Knows No Limits

Greece is about to default on its public debt or ruin the European Union, or both. The Greeks are destroying themselves today much as they did during the Peloponnesian War. This looks like the inevitable result of the welfare statism and entitlement mentality that is destroying the entire Western world. We see similar forces of anarchy at work in the “Occupy” movements in American cities.

An important factor in these movements is the fundamentally anarcho-syndicalist tenor of the union movement, which demands an ever greater share of national income. Public-sector unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been prominent in the “occupy” movement. Wisconsin AFSCME proudly sent pizzas “in solidarity” with the Wall Street occupiers.

Rutgers University labor economist Leo Troy calls public-sector unionism “the new socialism.” The old socialism was based on state ownership of the means of production. The new socialism involves the transfer of an ever greater share of the economy to the public sector. Government at all levels took about 5% of GDP a century ago and 13% on the eve of the Great Depression. The New Deal increased the proportion to one-third by 1960. We are in the forty percent range now, and the full nationalization of health care will put us over half.

Unions have been a primary force in the expansion of state power. Even the reputedly “conservative” American Federation of Labor called for “the abolition of the wage system.” A.F.L. President Samuel Gompers put organized labor’s goal as simply “more” — exactly what Johnny Rocco, the Al Capone-like figure portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the 1939 film “Key Largo,” explained as his ultimate end. The New Deal’s expansion of state power was based principally on private-sector unionism that began with the “occupy Flint” sit-down strikes of 1936.

Congress had empowered unions by the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to balance the power of corporations. But they had become a law unto themselves. Roscoe Pound, the Harvard Law School Dean who had done much to promote labor reform in the progressive era, noted in 1958 that unions were free to commit torts against persons and property, interfere with the use of transportation, break contracts, deprive people of the means of livelihood, and misuse trust funds, “things no one else can do with impunity. The labor leader and labor union now stand where the king and government . . . stood at common law.” Rather than a countervailing force to limit corporate power, unions had themselves gained “a despotic centralized control.” The private-sector union quest for “more” finally killed the auto and steel industries and private-sector unionism itself.

Public-sector unionism had suffered a major setback with the Boston police strike of 1919, which exposed the anarchical consequences of what Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge called a “strike against the public safety” and which President Woodrow Wilson called “an intolerable crime against civilization.” Government employees were expressly excluded under the Wagner Act. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained, “the very nature and purposes of government” made collective bargaining impossible, because a public employer is “the whole people, who speak by means of laws”–that is to say, the government is sovereign. A union that could compel it to bargain must perforce become the new sovereign.

The ethos of organized labor could often be predatory and nihilistic. It reminds one of the famous “Melian dialogue” in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians tell the citizens of Melos that they must join their alliance against the Spartans. When the Melians reply that they have a just right to remain neutral, the Athenian ambassadors reply that “we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.” When the Melians insist on their rights, the Athenians annihilate the city, kill all the men, and enslave the women and children.

This was the spirit of Representative William Clay’s advice to the air traffic controllers in 1980. He urged them to:

“…completely revise your political thinking. It should start with the premise that you have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. It must be selfish and pragmatic. You must learn the rules of the game and learn them well. Rule Number 1 says that you don’t put the interest of any other group ahead of your own. What’s good for the federal employees must be interpreted as being good for the nation. Rule Number 2 says that you take what you can, give up only what you must. Rule Number 3 says that you take it from whomever you can, whenever you can, however you can. If you are not prepared to play by the rules then you have not reached the age of political maturity and perhaps you deserve everything that’s happening to you.”

The United States dodged a bullet when Congress refused to enact Representative Clay’s National Public Employee Relations Act–a “Wagner Act for public employees”–in the mid-1970s. It was helped by a close Supreme Court decision that suggested that such an act was beyond Congress’ heretofore limitless power to regulate interstate commerce. Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers strike also helped to ensure that the United States did not go as far as Italy, Greece, or even Great Britain–before Margaret Thatcher–in turning over its government to public-employee unions.

The ethos of “more” for the public sector has driven most of the West to the point where the private sector cannot produce enough to stave off bankruptcy. Occupy Wall Street drivel notwithstanding, the outright confiscation of all of the income of the “1%” would not even eliminate this year’s federal deficit.