Should David Roe, Minnesota labor leader, be lionized?

“It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” George Meany on the idea of public sector collective bargaining in 1955, just before collective bargaining was first introduced in New York City and then Wisconsin in 1958 before spreading quickly throughout the nation.

David Roe, head of the AFL-CIO for about 20 years in Minnesota, was lionized by the Star Tribune upon his passing at the age of 92.

According to the Star Tribune editors, Roe “helped engineer the DFL gains that resulted in 1972 in full DFL control of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in state history. He was ready with an agenda that soon became law—the first state minimum wage, improved workers’ compensation protections, collective bargaining for public-sector workers.”

Policy arguments aside, can we treat this as darn good evidence that, as soon as the public sector was captured by unions, that labor leaders like David Roe quickly gained the upper hand over voters and elected officials in setting the agenda for Minnesota?

When you get to sit on both sides of the bargaining table, and fund your political allies while punishing your opponents, all paid for with union dues the government deducts from the paychecks of teachers and cops, and then delivers to your bank account, you get the impression that you are in charge. Because in many ways, you are.

When I was exploring a run for county commissioner many years ago, I was told I did not stand a chance unless I got the nod from the labor unions. When I talk to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about policy ideas, unless they have a totally safe seat, they first have to consider whether unions like AFSCME or Education Minnesota will whack them. Voters and even political parties are a secondary concern.

Fifty years after allowing public sector unions, Minnesota, is still a forced-union state with one of the highest rates of unionization in the country (57% as of 2010). Across the country, while private labor unions continue to see a decline in membership (6.4% of the workforce), the public sector continues to hold steady and even grow except in places like Wisconsin which has witnessed a 40% drop in members since Scott Walker historic and brave “Act 10” passed in 2011.

You hear it all the time. Most Americans agree that labor unions played a vital role in taming industrial America, so that people were paid a fair wage and did not face unsafe working conditions. That is good for employees and good for industry.

People even go so far to say that private labor unions have outlived their usefulness. I disagree. I think that so long as employees are free to join, or not to join a union, free to pay dues or not, that there are workplaces that can function better with an “agent” talking to management on behalf of some employees. But it has to be voluntary so that the union has to actually represent its members, and be stopped from using dues as a slush fund for a political agenda that has nothing to do with the employees it represents.

We have to recognize, however, that extending the right to collectively bargain to the public sector, without any reasonable limitations or accountability, has fundamentally warped our electoral process, forced public employees to fund a left-wing agenda and lead to a level of dysfunctionality that was easy to predict– and was predicted by labor leaders like George Meany and friends of labor like Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Unlike the private sector, where there are limited profits to be bargained over, in the public sector, there are unlimited taxpayer dollars to be captured.

David Roe sounds like he was a loving family man, with a big heart for the little guy and gal. Though his legacy is more controversial than the Star Tribune would admit, I am sure he thought he was doing great good. May he rest in peace.

A fun final note, something I had forgotten that came up in my research today: the postal service formed a union back in 1889, the only part of the public sector to be unionized in the nineteenth century. With apologies to my favorite postal lady Diane, that fact sure explains a lot about our postal service today.