Virginia Democrats are poised to legalize collective bargaining for government employees. In November Democrats brought Richmond under their total control for the first time in more than a quarter-century. The new legislative majorities seem intent on ignoring the painful lessons of New York state’s half-century experiment with government unions.

In 1967 Albany adopted a public-sector collective-bargaining law, ostensibly to end a wave of destructive strikes and “promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between government and its employees.” Named for the professor who helped craft it, the Taylor Law gave unions special privileges like the power to draw dues from an employee’s paycheck, and set strict rules requiring public employers to sit down at the negotiating table.

Virginia’s House of Delegates approved a similar framework earlier this month. But while New York in the late 1960s was struggling with idled subways, closed schools and uncollected trash, Virginia lawmakers face no such crisis now. The move appears to be little more than payback for labor’s political support of the Democrats. The ruling class in Richmond looks ready to subject taxpayers to higher employee costs in return for a permanent stream of union dues nourishing their re-election campaigns.

The Old Dominion, one of a handful of states where public-sector bargaining is forbidden, benefited during the 2007-09 recession from the ability of state and local officials to control costs as tax revenue dipped. Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine saved $198 million in fiscal 2010 alone by postponing scheduled pay raises for state employees. Meanwhile in New York, officials had no choice but to pay 3% raises to the state’s largest public union in spring 2009, even as income-tax receipts dipped almost 6%. The contract forced the state to shell out 4% raises to the same union only a year later.

Virginia’s experience during the financial crisis also compares favorably with that of neighboring Maryland, where local officials struggled to address fiscal realities because of union opposition. The Washington Post editorial page noted Virginia’s advantage and floated the possibility of abolishing public-sector collective bargaining in Maryland as a solution: “Fairfax County [Va.] has managed well without it.”

There’s more at stake than employee pay. Labor contracts in New York’s heavily unionized schools and local governments dictate nearly every facet of public-service delivery. These managerial glue traps block the people’s representatives from making meaningful changes without first getting labor’s blessing. New York’s transit officials, for instance, had to get union permission before they could have subway stations cleaned properly by a private contractor. Captive to New York’s bargaining law, efforts to lengthen school days, trim overtime costs and even thwart crimes against disabled people under state care have all been stymied. Mayors and other officials are routinely saddled with deals negotiated in secret by their predecessors. Nothing in the Virginia legislation would spare its local governments from an identical plight once the ink dried on the first agreements.

While even the worst labor deals eventually expire, New York has a “contract continuity” statute that keeps terms in place until a new agreement has been negotiated—giving unions a much stronger hand at the bargaining table. Employers must keep paying experience-based raises while they negotiate. Other state governments—even the most union-friendly ones—have painstakingly avoided this mistake. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo vetoed similar legislation in 2017 and said New York “provides an important lesson” for other states. But Richmond isn’t hearing it: Virginia’s proposed legislation has contract-continuity language mirroring New York’s.

The damage done by the Taylor Law is arguably most pronounced in New York’s public schools. Census data recently revealed that annual per pupil spending on K-12 education in the Empire State is $23,091—the highest in the country. The biggest cost is “instructional salaries and benefits,” which are controlled primarily by teachers union contracts. New York, all told, spends almost 43% more on each student than does Massachusetts, where teachers are also unionized but under terms less hostile to school management—and taxpayers.

Virginia students meanwhile either matched or outperformed their New York peers by every major metric on recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, even as the Old Dominion’s per pupil spending was less than $12,000.

If Virginia lawmakers are dead set on making their government emulate New York’s, they shouldn’t be surprised when costs, and outcomes, do the same.

© 2020 Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

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