Unions versus the Public

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to restrict collective bargaining with government employee unions, in order to cope with a yawning budget gap. Unionists have besieged the capital, protesting for their rights. Or, one might say, privileges.

Wisconsin protest sign, "targeting" Gov. Walker

There is a romantic view of labor unions as standing up for working people against evil exploitive employers. In “Bloody Ludlow,” strikers and their families were massacred at the behest of mine owners. But that was a century ago, and such mythologizing has little to do with today’s economy. Sure, businesses still do try to maximize profits, and employees are part of that. However, the greater challenge for a business today is not to use its workers like robots, but rather to attract the best ones, motivate them, and retain them.

The union movement was, indeed, so successful that it put itself out of a job in the industrial economy. Unions got government to enforce the protections they advocated, so that in effect government has taken over the mission that once was organized labor’s. Thus, not surprisingly, in the industrial landscape the percentage of unionized workers has been shrinking steadily into insignificance.

Yet, even while dying in that industrial economy, unionism has gained a second life in the public sector. Government is the one industry where unionism has thrived. That’s because here, it pushes against an open door. While private firms have every impetus to resist organized labor, elected politicians have opposite incentives.

Here, the old romantic notion of unions standing up for oppressed workers against exploitive employers is turned on its head. Who are public employee unions “bargaining” with? Not businesses – the public! And as those unions grow powerful and rich (their coffers filled with mandatory dues extracted from captive members), the politicians who run government become their captives too, beholden for vital campaign support. (This is mainly true of the Democrats; at their last national convention, one of every ten delegates came from the teacher’s unions alone.)

"Walker the Mubarak of the Midwest"

Elected officials can hardly resist union demands at the “bargaining table,” when those unions have them by the balls at election time. Such “bargaining” entails a blatant conflict of interest and can properly be labeled corrupt. The victim is the taxpayer. By and large, public employees in America enjoy significantly better pay, working conditions, job security, vacations, and benefits, than do comparable workers in the private sector. This is certainly true regarding health benefits. And excessively so for pension benefits. Bribed by political support from unions, politicians have given away the store, and the resulting bloated pension obligations are a major factor now wrecking state government finances.*

Those budget crunches are leading governments at all levels to cut back help to really needy and disadvantaged people. Public employees don’t fall into that category. It is really a shame when their plush pensions suck up so much money that we can no longer afford to help those much less fortunate.

This is what Gov. Walker is trying to deal with. This is the position of privilege – this ability to feather their nests at the expense of the broader public, by corrupting the system – that the indignant protestors in Wisconsin are battling to preserve.

*For the record, yes, I collect one of those very generous pensions myself; though by leaving before I was eligible to “retire” I kissed off lifetime health benefits.


2 Responses to “Unions versus the Public”

  1. Lee Says:

    I work for state government and am part of union. Maybe you would argue that my place is some sort of exception … but we’re having a problem retaining employees; folks are leaving for the much more lucrative private sector. While we’re used to having lower pay than those in industry, in exchange for the good feel that we’re doing something directly useful for our fellow citizens, we’re not used to be villainized for it.

    And the old saw that we have to cut the budget including public sector employees is getting old. We don’t have to cut this budget category. Keeping people employed doing useful things, educating them well, etc. is a sound government priority when businesses are hesitant to hire. Yes, there are plenty of parts of the budget that need cuts — e.g., if we’re going to spend this much on the wars we need to get more creation out of them and not so much destruction — but cutting public employee wages and the number of jobs is a bad idea until businesses are willing to step in to do their part.

    Wm. Clinton knew that we had to cut the budget in times of plenty so that we could save for a rainy day, and he delivered budget surpluses. GW Bush gave all our savings to his buddies. In my humble opinion, the time to save was then. Until businesses step up to the plate, now is the time to keep government payrolls going; spending at a deficit if that is what it takes.

    Personally, I worked for the private sector long enough that I have a nice cushion, and could easily withstand a pay cut. But many life-long public servants don’t have that.

    FSR RESPONSE: Lee, knowing your extremely high educational level, I wouldn’t doubt that you could command more in the private sector. I do indeed believe you are very atypical of government employees generally. And NEW YORK government pay, in my experience, is ungenerous. But NATIONALLY, I believe my statement — that state govt compensation, benefits, and, especially pensions, exceed private sector averages — is correct. Pensions are the biggie. Private industry has been assiduously digging out from the burden of defined-benefit pension schemes (where your pension depends on your final pay level, not contributions) which still predominate in state employment. States just have got to do something about this, it is unsustainable, and is gobbling up budget resources that might otherwise be used for the really disadvantaged. One of the key things that must be done is to base pensions on contributions. Of course this can only be effected going forward, for new employees. Pension obligations for existing employees are basically inviolate.

  2. Death of the Middle Class? « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] recall is a tremendous victory for the public over government extractionism.* (See my past post on the scandal of so-called “collective bargaining” by government worker […]

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