Democracy Uprising? Collective Bargaining and Public Sector Unions

Wisconsin state employees protests spread to Ohio and Indiana.  Americans believe in shared sacrifice.  When finances are tight, public employees should be asked for concessions – and so should those who are doing well. But these latest assaults aren’t about necessary sacrifice, they are about asserting power and these employees know it.  They are as mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more.

“It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”  George Meany, former President of the AFL-CIO in 1955. Government unions are unremarkable today, but the labor movement once thought the idea absurd.

Founders of the labor movement saw unions as vehicle to get workers more of profits they help create.  Government workers, however, don’t generate profits. They merely negotiate for more tax money.  When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers.  That is you and me.  FDR considered this “unthinkable and intolerable.”

Through the 1950s unions widely agreed that collective bargaining had no place in government. But starting with Wisconsin in 1959, state began to allow collective bargaining  in government. The influx of dues and members quickly changed the union movement’s tune, and collective bargaining in government is now widespread.  The result now is that unions can now insist on laws that serve their interest – at the expense of the common good.

Government collective bargaining means voters do not have the final say on public policy.  We pay the bill, but have nothing to say.  Instead their elected representatives must negotiate spending and policy decisions with unions.  That is not democratic, a fact that unions once recognized.

I might be crazy, and there has been at times questions about my state of mind, but there really is something wrong with this picture.  Union contracts make it impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones. Union contracts give government employees gold-plated benefits – at the cost of higher taxes and less spending on other priorities.   Voters should have control over government policy.  We elected representatives and they should decide how the government spends our taxes.

A decade sago, candidates for governor in highly unionized states sought the endorsement of government workers’ unions, knowing that this could lead to an easy election victory.  They learned their lesson. They discovered that confronting the unions rather than courting them pays off.  Unions it seems have outlived their usefulness.  Public employees, state or federal, have no right to strike.  If they do they can be fired.  Remember Reagan and the flight controllers?  Now, given it would be hard, then again maybe not, to replace teachers, but in this economy it could be done.  Truth is, teachers and state employees are going to lose benefits or pay more for them.  Teachers who can retire should retire before the new changes take effect.  Keep the benefits you have now, don’t take a loss.

The other side is this.  The unions are being made scapegoats for all that is going bad economically.Blame the public workers’ unions, especially the teachers, clerical and transportation workers union.  There is this wave of propaganda over the last few months, and it is impressive to watch, trying to deflect attention away from those who actually created the economic crisis, like Goldman Sacks, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, their partners in the government – Federal Reserve and others – let all this go on and helped it. Now they have switched attention away from the real people responsible for the crisis and switched blame for the crisis to teachers, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, their huge pensions, their incredible health benefits. Cadillac healthcare benefits, and their unions, who are the real villains, the ones who are robbing the taxpayer by making sure that policemen do not starve when they retire.

In Wisconsin, now the state employees say they are willing to accept givebacks in the budget, except for collective bargaining.  Since collective bargaining right have no near term budget impact, it is clear that Governor Walker’s goal, effort is not budgetary, but an effort to bust the public unions.  This same scenario will play out in Ohio and Indiana and many other states.

Unions must fight for the hearts and the minds of the voters. It is not enough for them simple to demand that what has been given to them in the past must be continued, or argue that they are really not better paid than private sector workers and that cuts are not justified. The unions can only repel attacks with concessions in bargaining reasonableness that seems adequate and fair.  If they are to survive to represent workers forcefully in better times, they must now demonstrate that they are willing to shoulder a share of these hard times.

They must win the hearts of the voters.



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