Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Split In Two

There are two or perhaps three primary issues being battled over in Wisconsin. The first is the actual deal which public sector unions have vs. what the government wishes them to have; the second is whether they should be allowed to collectively bargain and negotiate the terms of their working in general; and the third (related to the second) is whether public sector employees should be allowed to unionize at all. Let's split them up simply and figure out what seems fair.

1) Pay & Benefits

The average Wisconsin public school teacher salary is $56,500. The average amount they receive in benefits $43,505, or 74.2 cents for each dollar earned. Employees of private companies average approximately 24.3 cents in fringe benefits. (To calculate yours, take the monetary value of your pension, health insurance, etc. which are provided by your work and divide that by your gross salary. My most recent job that was approximately 13 cents, and I had a great health care plan.)

Included in this is a regular pension of 13% (the 6.2% employee contribution is paid not by the employees but by the state), a second pension of 4.2% (all from the state), and a classified pension of 5.5% (employee contribution is contributed by the state not the employee). I'm highlighting this only because it seems incredibly silly that even the portions which are supposed to be employee-contributed are in fact state-contributed. There's more detail in the WSJ piece, but essentially, public sector employees receive almost as much in benefits as they do in pay - and over 3 times as much as typical private employees.

2) Collective Bargaining

Gov. Walker and most taxpayers would like to end the ability of public sector workers to collectively bargain - i.e., be able to negotiate as a group like they are currently able to do. As noted previously, FDR and other major Democratic leaders opposed the ability to do so; in fact, even AFL-CIO leader George Meany opposed this:
Why? Because unlike in the private economy, a public union has a natural monopoly over government services. An industrial union will fight for a greater share of corporate profits, but it also knows that a business must make profits or it will move or shut down. The union chief for teachers, transit workers or firemen knows that the city is not going to close the schools, buses or firehouses.

This monopoly power, in turn, gives public unions inordinate sway over elected officials. The money they collect from member dues helps to elect politicians who are then supposed to represent the taxpayers during the next round of collective bargaining. In effect union representatives sit on both sides of the bargaining table, with no one sitting in for taxpayers. In 2006 in New Jersey, this led to the preposterous episode in which Governor Jon Corzine addressed a Trenton rally of thousands of public workers and shouted, "We will fight for a fair contract." He was promising to fight himself.
In addition, government union workers care not about protecting more workers, but protecting their sweet deal. They would rather allow jobs to be cut than give up their collective bargaining rights. That speaks volumes about the priorities of the union. It's unfair to taxpayers to be held hostage by the people who are meant to be working on their behalf. It would be like a cabbie being allowed to demand extra cash continuously while on a deserted highway - except you're not allowed to use any other cab. Without rules to stop such activity, the people who are supposed to work for the people end up owning the people.

3) Public Sector Unions

Firstly, some history:
In 1960, 31.9% of the private work force belonged to a union, compared to only 10.8% of government workers. By 2010, the numbers had more than reversed, with 36.2% of public workers in unions but only 6.9% in the private economy. 
In fact, until 1962, federal workers were not allowed to unionize at all. JFK at that point allowed some to organize, hoping to gain support for his next election. Perhaps more importantly, at the federal level, government union workers are not allowed to collectively bargain even today. The linked article suggests this is why President Obama quickly quieted on the subject and on his support for the unions: He did not want too much attention focused his way, particularly as he will certainly not allow this to change.

This fact allow belies the notion floated by some union supporters that taking away their collective bargaining rights will somehow cause union workers to be taken advantage of. Federal workers do quite nicely for themselves despite their lack of ability to bargain collectively, and it seems laughable to suggest that qualified government employees will somehow be stuck in horrible jobs that treat them poorly - it doesn't behoove the public to attempt to take advantage of people attempting to service their needs (an argument weak enough in 21st century corporations), and even if there were such a case, a qualified employee would certainly be able to move to the private sector with ease.

Perhaps a better way to explain this is by showing how a lack of protectionism for current public employees will essentially turn those positions into competitive ones, much like the private sector. Government can't simply take advantage, because people will simply not work for a bad employer. If there are too many teachers, then it's proper that some of them be cut. If that leads to poor education, it seems logical that voters would vote in a government that is willing to pay more for education, which will lead to better hiring practices. It would function just like the private sector, except with the added advantage of an entire population to answer to and whom can actually vote you out.

All in all, it seems quite clear that what the Democrats of yesterday realized needs to be learned by the politicians and people of today: Government unions cannot be allowed to have sway over the purse of government, as it leads to the economic destruction of the people whom government is meant to represent. Instead, it is these union members who should remember that they too are of the people, put in their positions by the people, and ultimately are there to be of service for the people - not only for themselves.