The following is written by Stephen Bainbridge. Bainbridge is is the William D. Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law in Los Angeles, where he currently teaches Business Associations, Advanced Corporation Law and a seminar on corporate governance.

Let’s get the usual disclaimers out of the way. As a practicing Catholic, I give religious assent to the Magisterium of the Church and all due respect to the Bishops thereof. Yet, I also note that the church encourages lay initiative “especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life.” United States Catholic Conference, Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 899 (2d ed. 1997).

The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America (which I think is fairly described as left leaning) recently held a conference at which San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy gave a keynote address. There is much in Bishop McElroy’s address that is worthy of comment and I likely will have more to say about it in the future. In this post, however, I want to focus on his call for the Church to stand in solidarity with public employee unions:

“One of the lynchpins of the tradition of Catholic teaching on economic justice is that the right to workers’ associations is not only an essential element of obtaining justice for the workers themselves, but that it also contributes to the common good of society as a whole. There is no doubt that there will be further attacks upon the rights of public sector unions to exist and seek justice for their members in the coming years. And while the duty of all unions to seek the common good of society as a whole presents special obligations for public workers, all of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching which have enshrined the right to organize and bargain collectively at the very heart of the church’s social doctrine testify equally to the right of public sector workers to obtain justice in pay, benefits and working conditions through robust unions.”

The highlighted passage calls to mind Harry Truman’s famous plea: “Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on hand…’, then ‘but on the other…” On the one hand, Bishop McElroy gives (dare I say grudging) recognition of the special problems created by public sector unionism. On the other hand, he also gives (may I say full throated) support for the principle of pubic sector unionism.

I have no quarrel with the longstanding tradition in Catholic Social Thought of support for private sector unionism. It figured in the Pope Leo XIII’s foundational encyclical Rerum Novarum:

“We may lay it down as a general and lasting law that working men’s associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property.”

As I read the relevant papal encyclicals, which form the core of Catholic Social Thought, however, the unions at issue typically are understood as associations of workers employed by private–especially industrial–enterprise. Even in that context, moreover, the encyclicals recognize that the right of free association must be balanced against the public good. In discussing the right to strike in Laborem Exercens, for example, John Paul II wrote that:

“While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for “political” purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself.”

Public sector unionism in fact poses a direct and inescapable threat to the common good of society in a way that private unions simps do not.

A core problem with public sector unionism is that it creates a uniquely powerful interest group. In theory, bureaucrats are supposed to work for and be accountable to the elected representatives of the people. But suppose those bureaucrats organize into large, well-funded, powerful unions that can tip election results. With very few and very unique exceptions, no workplace in which the employees elect the supervisors functions well for long. Yet, research by Terry Moe (22 J.L. Econ. & Org. 1) into the electoral power of teachers’ unions finds just such an outcome:

The first study … provides evidence that teachers, acting through their unions, are quite successful at getting their favored candidates elected to local school boards. When a candidate is supported by the unions, her probability of winning increases dramatically, so much so that the impact of union support appears to be roughly the same as the impact of incumbency. In terms of total impact, union influence may be even greater than this suggests, because union victories literally produce incumbents—and the power of incumbency then works for union candidates to boost their probability of victory still further in future elections.

The second study … shows that public bureaucrats’ turnout advantage over other citizens is much greater than the existing literature would lead us to expect. It also offers persuasive new grounds for believing that their high turnout is indeed motivated by occupational self-interest—and more generally, that they are actively and purposely engaged in an electoral effort to control their own superiors

Moe concludes:

“The prevailing theories treat bureaucrats as mere subordinates, controlled from above by political authorities. But the control relationship can run both ways, and not just because bureaucrats have expertise and other sources of private information. In a democratic system the authorities are elected, and this gives bureaucrats an opportunity to exercise electoral power in determining who will occupy positions of authority and what choices they will make in office. It would be odd indeed if public bureaucrats and their unions did not invest in this kind of reverse control—and there is ample evidence that they do.

Add to this political power of public employee unions the private sector strike weapon and they may have, argue the authors, a disproportionate quantum of power sufficient to distort the normal political process. Their power may be so effective a means of redistributing income that they will have “an institutionalized means of obtaining and maintaining a subsidy for union members.”

In sum, public sector unionism lacks the moral and economic justifications for private sector unionism. It results in significant distortions of the political process, which have real adverse consequences for the taxpayers.

Indeed, consider the looming economic disaster coming in most states and localities as bloated public sector union benefits–especially pension benefits–are essentially bankrupting the public sector. (See The Pension Fund that Ate California for a particularly detailed account of the problem.) A briefing paper from the left-leaning Brookings Institute explains:

The Providence Journal has observed that:

“At the bottom of it all is a political culture that rewarded politicians who made unsustainable promises, working in mutually beneficial tandem with public employee union leaders who extracted remarkably generous benefits without worrying about the long-term costs to the citizenry, especially when the inevitable recession arrived.”

Public employee unions are one of the most—if not the most—powerful political actors in state politics and have used that power to protect and expand the pension benefits of their members, as one would expect. As Healey, Hess and Nicholson have observed:

“Public sector unions are often highly involved in raising funds and donating to the campaigns of political candidates, often with the goal of preserving the pension status quo … As important as it may be to take on the challenge [of pension reform] many lawmakers are still politically incentivized to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.”

Why do union leaders support pension policies that threaten to undermine the ability of a state to deliver promised benefits to their members? Dr. Thomas H. Little from the State Legislative Leaders Foundation noted that it has a lot to do with internal union politics: “Union representatives tend not to look long-term but rather focus on the short-term interests of the current and retired members who elected them and on whom they depend for re-election. These folks tend to be adamantly opposed to cuts in their benefits.”

Public sector unionism is inherently at odds with the common good, as it impedes the ability of the State to provide basic services to citizens at large.

In sum, the late Cardinal Edward Egan was thus correct when he argued at a 2011 conference on work (50 J. Cath. Legal Stud. 149) that:

“There is a basic difference between the public employee and the private employee. You cannot fairly say, “Here is an argument for the private employee,” and apply it without distinction to the public employee. That tactic may get you through an opinion piece in a newspaper, but it will not work in a serious discussion where the participants are free to demand precise definitions and, above all, clear distinctions.”

I call on Bishop McElroy to heed that warning and address squarely whether Catholic Social Thought’s plain teaching on private unions in fact ought to extend to public sector unions in whole or part.

Full article at Stephen Baingbridge blog.