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.
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.)
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.