It’s time to face the obvious. Something must be done to control public employee unions.
Unions should be honored for their historic role in improving intolerable conditions for laborers. At least that’s what we’re told. But it’s clear that doesn’t apply to public-sector unions. Government never subjected its workers to 12-hour days of back-breaking labor while ignoring worker safety and welfare. Instead, government employment was considered a sinecure for those willing to accept somewhat lower income in return for job security and less demanding workloads.
Prior to the 1960s, there were only minimal public unions because Americans regarded them as a bad idea. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 confirmed the widely held view that collective bargaining “cannot be transplanted into government service.” Even George Meany, the longtime leader of the AFL-CIO, warned “it is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
Here’s why. In the private sector, employers are naturally motivated to avoid excessive compensation and inefficient work rules. Their interests are balanced by those of union officials, who are elected to bring home the most pay for the least work possible for their members.
No such balance exists in the public sector. Instead, union leaders are dealing with public officials who were either elected with their support or at least are acutely aware of their political clout. Then-Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey in 2006, the “management” leader in labor talks, told a cheering crowd of union workers “we will fight for a fair contract.” As Victor Gotbaum, a former New York union leader once accurately pointed out, “we have the ability to elect our own boss”.
Decades of negotiations with both labor and management being on essentially the same side have produced predictable results. Not only do government workers have enhanced security and protection from accountability, but their compensation levels have gone through the roof. It has finally dawned on most Americans that when benefits are counted, our servants in government earn more — often up to 40 or 50 percent more — than we do for the same work. They typically have defined-benefit pension plans, considered unaffordable in the private sector, with minimal employee contributions. Their gold-plated health insurance plans come in handy during their early retirements.
But as governments everywhere sink into dangerous levels of deficits and debt, politicians of all stripes are beginning to realize we can no longer afford to fund this politically favored class. In the world of unions, where the cause of the “working man” is sacred and concessions are considered intolerable, this is considered an “assault on unions,” as President Obama opined.
Unions demonized Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as the “Midwest Mussolini” and brandished signs demanding that he “Stop the Hate,” in response to his relatively mild reform proposals. In fact, so morally superior are their efforts to continue the public spending on themselves that they felt justified in faking sick leave while effectively repudiating free elections by shutting down legislatures in Indiana and Wisconsin. Even the notion of self-government must bow to their demands.
Yet to the extent that government workers are paid more than their worth in the open market — and they are — they’re just another welfare group supported by taxpayer largesse. Like protesters in Greece and around the world, there’s ultimately not much anybody can do to assuage their disappointment in government’s inability to maintain them permanently in the style to which they have become accustomed. The rest of us are just tapped out.
Ideally, we could admit we made a wrong turn and once again ban public unions. Since they’re now by far the most powerful interest group in any state, that may not be possible.
But Gov. Walker’s suggestion to submit compensation raises to a public vote makes sense, since taxpayers are the actual “management” entity whose interests are at stake. At a bare minimum, we should stop the practice of government collecting union dues, including the portion going to political activities, out of workers’ paychecks without their permission. It’s nuts to ensure that this particular interest group, dedicated to higher taxes and spending, is perpetually and automatically funded.
That’s not hate and it’s not union-busting. It’s simple self-preservation for the folks paying the bills.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator