Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007 | In the summer of 1972, I’d just been elected to the Del Mar City Council and was attending my first-ever meeting of the League of California Cities. Walking to the conference’s opening session at a Sacramento hotel, then San Diego City Council member Jim Bates and I were confronted by a union picket line surrounding the building. After a few moments of reflection, we decided not to cross the picket line to support the striking workers. At the time, neither of us appreciated the significance of striking workers picketing a conference of city government officials.

I mention this episode because it symbolizes for me the collision of two important forces in our evolving understanding of equity and accountability in a democratic society.

One force is the right of workers to organize. The first half of the twentieth century included a long — and sometimes violent — struggle to protect individual workers from exploitation and to create a more level playing field. The right of workers to organize and bargain collectively is one of the major social advancements of the last century.

But, as our economy evolved in the latter half of the last century, with manufacturing jobs lost to automation and to countries with lower labor costs, and new jobs created that depend on highly skilled workers who don’t need labor unions to give them bargaining power with their employers, union membership has consistently and precipitously declined in this country.

In fact, the only area of membership growth for labor unions in recent decades has been the public sector. For that reason, organized labor has focused much of its attention and resources on government workers.

However, government agencies are profoundly different from the big businesses for which labor unions were originally created to provide a counter-balance. The “employers” of government workers are not an unaccountable corporate board of directors, they are the elected representatives of the people.

And therein lies the other force — the principle of representative government — that now collides with the organizing rights of individual workers. Because when unions succeed in organizing government workers, and when the unions then focus their resources on influencing the election of representatives who become the “employers” of their members, they dislocate the checks and balances on which representative democracy depends.

We witnessed a dramatic example of this dislocation in San Diego, when City Council members beholden to organized labor granted benefits to union members that our city government could not afford. That dislocation continues in the union’s attempt to use the coercive power of city government to punish a private retailer — Wal-Mart — that has resisted union organizing efforts.

San Diego is not the only government agency in America where the dislocation created by these colliding forces has produced problems. New York City was pushed to the brink of insolvency by its employee unions. Reform of education, prisons and healthcare in the state of California are all stymied by a state legislature beholden to employee unions.

As a result of new accounting rules that go into affect this year, government agencies throughout the country will, for the first time, be forced to disclose the extent to which they have sold out the public interest by granting inflated benefits to their union employees.

For that reason, 2007 may be an appropriate time to re-examine the impact of union organizing and electioneering in the public sector.

Public employees deserve fair treatment as much as any other worker in our society. But when the power of public employee unions enables them to occupy both sides of the public sector bargaining table — and they are bargaining with our tax dollars — the public has a right to consider limitations on the power of those unions, just as the public has legitimately supported restrictions on the unfettered power of corporations when their actions undermined the public interest.

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