Government Unions Work for Their Members, Not for You

Public-sector unions say they’re fighting for “working people,” but force politicians to pay them wages and benefits much better than they’d get in the free market.


What He Said:

Senator Bernie Sanders: “Across the country, the extreme right wing has been waging a war to dismantle unions all over this country. That is a war they cannot be allowed to win. Working people in this country need a seat at the bargaining table to fight for higher wages, decent health care, a secure retirement and a safe working environment. Public-sector unions are that voice and the Supreme Court must not take away that voice. We need to expand, not eliminate, the collective bargaining rights of all Americans. When unions are strong, the middle class is strong.”

What Should Be Said:

Taxpayers already pay public-sector union members more and provide them with far more generous benefits than their private-sector counterparts. The very working people Sen. Sanders claims to champion are the ones who are paying the highest price for unsustainable compensation deals that politicians have given government workers in return for their Election Day support.

Sanders says government workers need the power of mandatory collective bargaining and worker dues to achieve “higher wages, decent healthcare, a secure retirement and a safe working environment,” but government workers already have all that and more when compared to the private sector.

What government unions really want is for government to keep growing bigger and more expensive, because it’s their members who benefit the most when that happens, and they share the wealth with the politicians they support.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

If you’re a blue-collar worker, a federal civilian job is a great gig. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s overview of federal government compensation from 2011-2015, “Federal civilian workers with no more than a high school education earned 34 percent more, on average, than similar workers in the private sector.” Incredibly, they also received 93 percent more in benefits than their private-sector counterparts. Meanwhile, federal workers with a bachelor’s degree earned just 5 percent more but received 52 percent more in benefits; while high-education workers with a doctorate earned 24 percent less in a federal government job and had roughly equal benefit costs.

Those imbalances don’t just exist in the federal government. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report on occupations and wages, the 21.5 million government employees in the United States across all levels of government averaged an annual mean wage of $55,630, or $26.75 per hour. That’s higher than the private sector annual equivalent of $48,550 per year, or $23.34 per hour. And those differences show up in the same jobs: Data-entry keyers make an average of $15.02 per hour in the private sector, versus $16.55/hour in government. Automotive technicians average $20.00/hour in the free market, versus $24.40/hour in government. “Cleaners of vehicles and equipment” make more than twice as much in government jobs ($23.84/hour) as they do in the private sector ($11.64/hour).

In addition to higher wages, public-sector union members don’t have to worry about whether their job will offer them health benefits. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 68 percent of private-sector workers have access to health-care coverage through their job. They pay, on average, $546.83 per month in premiums for family coverage. Meanwhile, essentially all unionized state and local government employees have access to health plans, for which they pay an average monthly family premium of just $475.47 — more than $850 per year less than private-sector workers.

Additionally, BLS researchers found 12 percent of unionized non-federal government workers continue to pay no premiums at all for their family health plans, letting taxpayers pick up the entire average $1,444.43 monthly cost.

Pushing Toward the Pension Cliff

As the Center for Responsive Politics’ page tracking public-sector union political donations notes, “Since contract negotiations for these workers are dependent not on private corporations, but on the size of government budgets, this is the one segment of the labor movement that can actually contribute directly to the people with ultimate responsibility for its livelihood.”

One way in which union influence over their own compensation is most visible is in the public-sector pension crisis.

Wages and health-care pale in comparison to the problems public-sector unions have caused by fighting to keep adding new members to dangerously underfunded pension plans. State governments —  meaning taxpayers — owe $1.1 trillion more in pension benefits than they have set aside in pension funds to meet those commitments.

Years ago, private-sector employers began to recognize the dangers of an open-ended promise to pay a worker in retirement a defined amount for the rest of their lives. Corporations have largely stopped adding new members to pension plans, and just 18 percent of private-sector workers have that option, while 62 percent have access to a “defined contribution” plan like a 401(k) where there is no future liability for the employer.

But thanks in large part to that political power of public-sector unions, 94 percent of unionized state and local government workers still have access to a defined-benefit pension plan. And that figure has barely budged in recent years, even though paying for those plans has become a massive financial drain on state and local governments. A report on government pensions published by a  national financial accounting trade group concluded, “Not only is the contribution cost large, but it also usually represents more than 100% of a city’s or a state’s budget deficit. In other words, if cities or states were to fix their pension deficits, they would fix their budget deficits.”

These budget deficits mean tax increases and cuts to government services on which working families in those communities depend. Schools, police, fire, roads, courts, garbage, parks and more all suffer when governments have to cut budgets today to pay for unfunded promises to retired government workers.

Follow the Money

When public-sector unions fight to keep pension plans open for new government employees, when they influence politicians into handing them wages and benefits better than they’d receive in the free market, and when they try to force unwilling workers to subsidize their activism, they’re not fighting for the “middle class” or for workers as a whole. Government unions represent government workers, and those workers benefit when government gets bigger and more expensive, regardless of the costs to the taxpaying workers in the private sector who are picking up the tab.


John C. Mozena is a communicator working to spread liberty and free markets. He has been a vice president at a free-market think tank, spent two decades in a variety of private-sector marketing and communications roles and began his career as a newspaper reporter and editor covering health care policy. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.


What Should Be Said shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.

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