Problems With Public Employee Unions
- 7 March 2011 by Author 0 Comments
Problems With Public Employee Unions
By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 03/07/11
Most federal government unions do not include pension and benefits in their collective bargaining. And yet President Obama has the audacity to scold Wisconsin Governor Walker for trying to restrict collective bargaining by his state government employees to wages only, the same as the federal employees. Interesting dichotomy.
The two million federal civilian (non-postal) workers Obama presides over can’t bargain over benefits, and it is the rare exception for federal employee unions’ benefits to be subject to union contracts. The President said in November that federal government employees are required to “make some sacrifices” to the tune of $2 billion this fiscal year, in announcing a two-year wage freeze affecting all federal union members. Yet Governor Walker is somehow the “union-buster” for “restricting” his state unions to collective bargaining at the same level of most federal employees, while being labeled in the most despicable of terms.
One cannot be a student of history without recognizing the tremendous contributions unions made to the emergence of the middle class in early to mid 20th century America. They forced improved working conditions, workweek hours, and compensation levels. But one can’t help but wonder if they’ve outlived their usefulness to the rank-and-file worker, as they have become primarily political entities, with forced union dues used heavily for amassing power in the political arena. Even Bob Chanin, former top lawyer for the National Education Association, admitted that in his farewell speech two years ago. “It’s not about the kids…it’s about power.”
According to Department of Labor statistics, only about 7% of America’s private sector workforce is unionized. In post World War II era, it was nearly 40%. The trend is reversed for public employees, where 60 years ago the unionized segment of the public employees workforce was less than 10%, while it currently is nearly 37%. Logic leads one to surmise that maybe all those “evil corporations” have gotten it right, and are providing pay and benefits at a level that employees are satisfied with. While the same logic might lead us to believe that, following those trends, it is “evil government” that is taking advantage of employees and must be represented by collective bargaining.
I rather suspect it has more to do with the deep pockets of government with a virtually assured continuous revenue stream (taxes), and the political influence those public employee unions can exercise over their employers, our elected officials. Private employers can only go so far until the strong-arm tactics of organized labor bankrupts their companies, as we saw with the U.S. automakers. However, state, local, and national governments can be forced to meet labor demands by increasing the taxes the rest of us pay for their contracts, while holding us hostage to the services they provide. If we fail to pony-up on their demands, teachers, firefighters, and policemen are forced by their union management to walk out on their obligations to us, their real employers.
A New York Times Magazine essay titled “Labor’s Future,” published in 1955, quoted AFL-CIO president George Meany, “The main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
And in 1940, Arnold Zander, the Wisconsin union organizer who became the first president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, wrote that AFSCME saw “less value in the use of contracts and agreements in public service than . . . in private employment.” Instead of collective bargaining, he argued, “our local unions find promotion and adoption of civil service legislation . . . the more effective way” to serve the interests of government employees. As late as the 1950s, AFSCME considered collective bargaining in the public sector desirable but not essential, and viewed strong civil service laws as the best protection for government workers.
There is a fundamental problem with unions’ collective bargaining with governmental entities, which invariably results in unions being represented on both sides of the negotiating table. Union demands are voiced by their union leadership, and those demands are echoed by politicians who owe their elected positions to those unions that are bargaining on the other side of the table. That’s what has Wisconsin over a barrel. Not coincidently, the ten states with the most budgetary red ink to reconcile are in the same situation, with organized labor holding the states hostage to their platinum-plated health care and pension programs. Negotiated entitlements and unrestrained spending are breaking the backs of those states’ budgets.
Some who are pro-public-employee union are waking up to this fact. As David Crane, of the California Board of Regents recently wrote, “Collective bargaining in the public sector serves to reduce benefits for citizens and to raise costs for taxpayers.”
If companies cannot control their costs, they fail. If governments cannot control their costs, they tap their perpetual income stream (tax payers) for more. Since support of corporations is voluntary and support of government is compulsory, ethics and fiscal responsibility are on Governor Walker’s side.
AP award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.