Many Americans, like the misguided Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, seem to think there is no place in government for an unionized work force. Maybe they would have a point in a perfect world, a world where commissioners and other government managers were not susceptible to corruption. A world where fair wages are paid to all.
But all too often the lack of checks and balances that a strong union would offer lead to smarmy government practices. Like the “flower funds” run by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) and other state agencies in the mid-1960s.
The 95 ACC employees, all without protection of a union, “voluntarily” coughed-up 2% of their gross income to a flower fund. With no job security, the employees were too scared to complain. Few if any said, no. They could lose their jobs at the snap of the fingers of one of the three elected commissioners. If you didn’t pay up, one secretary was quoted as saying, “They hounded you to death.”
Each department within the ACC had someone in charge of collections, usually a secretary. The money from the flower fund ostensibly went to sick employees or to “poor families.” But this was not the case in practice, as the great investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic, Don Bolles, wrote in November of 1963, just over a year after he arrived in town.
Bolles found that the flower fund was used by the three commissioners for their own personal re-election campaigns and other illegal purposes. In short, taxpayers were unwittingly funding the seamy practice through the state-paid salaries of employees. And, Bolles wrote, the flower funds were fairly common in Arizona’s state government. The Tax Commission, the State Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction also maintained similar scams.
The Tax Commission at the time had an annual payroll of about $1.09 million, Bolles wrote. Taking 2% of that gross payroll would bring in nearly $22,000 a year for fraudulent uses. Apparently the flower funds had beenn operating for a long time.
The point is this. If the employees had been union members, this form of criminality would never have taken place. No one would have faced the loss of a job for failing to volunteer to the flower fund. And indeed the flower funds would never have existed. Unions can be a check on the excesses of government. That’s not a bad thing.