Audubon water

A resident pulls a garbage can from the water near Audubon and Cohn streets Sunday morning after a water main break.

The New Orleans City Council would be making a huge mistake if it approves legislation, tentatively on the schedule for this week, to codify union bargaining rights for city employees.

With city services already infamously unreliable, New Orleans needs to move in entirely the opposite direction from a union straitjacket. All across the country, public-sector unions have created sclerotic, unresponsive, unaccountable bureaucracies. Unlike private-sector unions, public-employee unions by their very nature rig the system against the public interest.

Credit Sarah Harbison, general counsel for the Pelican Institute, for flagging the well-intentioned but misguided proposal by Council Vice President Helena Moreno. “Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are typically negotiated in secret and remain in effect for years at a time,” Harbison wrote May 11. “They generally govern pay, working conditions, and establish a reduction in force protocol that typically retains workers based on seniority rather than merit.”

Union CBAs can be fine things in many instances in private enterprise, but even famously liberal President Franklin D. Roosevelt and longtime AFL-CIO union leader George Meany fiercely argued that unionizing should be anathema for public bureaucracies. Meany said that it is “impossible to bargain collectively with the government,” and Roosevelt explained that “the process of collective bargaining … cannot be transplanted into public service.”

Philip K. Howard, the famed, centrist public-reform advocate and author of "The Death of Common Sense," explains all this in his book published this year called "Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions." He explains that by their very nature, public employee unions enjoy “extortive power.” Unlike in free enterprise, where “factories can be moved elsewhere when labor demands are unreasonable,” public unions experience “little downside risk with excessive collective-bargaining demands” because “government can’t go out of business.” The unions do not face “any other organized opposing force” such as business executives worried about profits.

Once ensconced, such unions become a political force in and of themselves, holding hostage with their votes the same officials who are elected by the public to provide oversight of the public treasury.

“Collective bargaining agreements effectively bar the most important management tool — accountability,” Howard writes. “They also preclude basic management choices — including reassigning personnel and allocation responsibilities for projects.”

In 163 pages, Howard argues not just that public-sector unions are unwise, but also unconstitutional. It is on the “unwise” side of the equation, though, that his plethora of bureaucratic horror stories really hits home. Again and again, he shows how even good workers get caught without hope for meritorious advancement, while lazy, incompetent, or even corrupt employees and managers get protected in ways that rarely happen where unions don’t hold sway.

There’s the New York school principal “fired” for fraudulent activity but who was ensured by union contracts to still receive a $265,000 annual salary for seven more years. There’s the Environmental Protection Agency employee caught using his work time to surf porn sites but who still was paid for two more years. And so ceaselessly on.

As it is, New Orleans government workers enjoy significant civil-service protections, and they have engaged in collective bargaining less formally for years. To enshrine those union rights into law, however, as Moreno’s proposal would do, would create a situation of moral hazard — “when individuals or entities in a transaction can engage in risky behavior because the other parties are contractually bound to assume the negative consequences” — that is vastly detrimental to the public interest.

Harbison of the Pelican Institute listed several quite specific defects in Moreno’s proposal.

“The proposed ordinance does not address emergencies,” she said, as just one example. “If the resulting collective bargaining agreement does not provide that the city may accept bids for emergency contracts from all providers and limits the pool of providers to only unionized ones, the available pool of bidders shrinks, and the cost of the contract increases.”

Obviously, in a city known for suffering emergencies, natural and otherwise, this could be highly problematic: If many union employees must flee a storm, but there’s no provision to bring in outside workers, including workers who may not be unionized, essential services could be severely curtailed.

There are more problems like that, but you get the idea: By codifying public union power into law, the city loses flexibility and effective management. With all the other problems facing New Orleans right now, the last thing the City Council should be doing is tying city government’s managerial hands.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a senior commentary writer and editor for the Washington Examiner, working from the Gulf Coast. He can be reached at His other columns appear at