Confusion on Public vs. Private Unions
posted at 9:06 am on February 23, 2011 by Jazz Shaw
Allah already touched on the results of a new poll on American attitudes towards unions and, in particular, collective bargaining. It should serve as a cautionary tale to those who may be looking to go a bridge too far a bit too quickly in their anti-union zeal. But the current debate also seems to indicate a bit of confusion in some quarters when it comes to the players involved on the field.
Most of the debates we have here are readily broken down into two camps: left vs. right, red vs. blue, pro vs. con. But in this discussion there are three unique sets of players.
- Government – This covers federal, state and local, and it grows even more complicated because it is polluted by the process of politics.
- Industry – The private sector and the engine of American economics. Creators of jobs, gatherers of wealth, innovators of technology.
- Labor – In this case composed of the myriad union entities who represent the workers.
And further, it is important, as will be shown below, to recognize that Labor needs to be broken down into two sub-groups. One deals with Industry and the other with Government, and the differences between those two forms of relationships are critical.
I should start by stipulating that I am not flatly in favor of “union busting” as a way of life. There is still a very valid role for unions to play in this dance, though the conditions on the ground have changed drastically since the birth of the union era and the unions themselves have failed to adapt appropriately to the times. But too much of anything is still bad. Though it chafes on my fiscal conservative friends to hear it, too much Industry – in the form of unbridled, unregulated capitalism – causes long term societal problems. Too much government is, well… too much government. Similarly, too much power in the hands of unions has led to a tumor in the body of American capitalism. As such, it is not in any way “unamerican” or “crushing the working man” to be engaging in a conversation about if, where and how to limit – not eliminate – collective bargaining agreements today.
To understand this, it’s first important to recognize one key difference between Government and Industry. Both serve as “employers” for this question, but their base motivations are quite different. Industry is in the business of making and keeping money. Government is in the business of spending – or flat out giving away – money.
But perhaps more important is the difference in the relationship between the two aspects of Labor and those two types of employers. Labor and industry are in a completely adversarial – and at least somewhat balanced – relationship as opponents. Industry wants to keep its money. Labor wants to get as much of that money, in the form of pay, benefits and such, as it can get. Labor has no back door crowbar to apply in an effort to influence Industry’s decisions. They don’t dump extra cash into Industry’s profits. They can’t influence others to suddenly boot out the management of Industry. All they can do is fight as a bargaining unit to get the best deal possible. It’s an uneasy marriage which has worked in fits and starts for a long time.
But the relationship between Labor and Government is far more complicated, if not poisoned to the point of being toxic. Labor has a large collection of guns pointed directly at the head of its Government employer. It collects vast amounts of money which is applied to the political process, threatening the livelihood of individual Government “managers.” It can round up vast numbers of votes each fall, presenting another threat to the elected officials responsible for doing the bargaining. It can, with those tools, make and receive demands which would be laughed out of the room in any reasonable discussion with an Industry employer.
And since the toxic combination of money and politics permeates the process, Labor has run amok in these discussions, demanding increasingly plush deals stretching out over the full lifetimes of generations of workers, bringing us to the situation we face today where states are going bankrupt in an effort to honor these pacts and keep paying the ransom. This is a situation which simply has to change or the goose is going to stop laying eggs – golden or otherwise – and the workers will find themselves out on the streets even as the financial structure of the Government entities collapses.
But by the same token, government employees still deserve some level of protection to ensure parity with their private sector counterparts and to prevent the pendulum from swinging too far in the other direction. So absent the complete elimination of collective bargaining,what’s to be done? I have a few suggestions for the class to consider and discuss.
First, any negotiations between Government and public union Labor should have the official, mediating assistance of some sort of private sector board which would be charged with monitoring current labor conditions and statistics from the non-government workforce. After all, aside from the actual elected positions of those making legislation or serving as governors, etc. most government jobs are the same as you find in the private market. There are jobs ranging from engineers and scientists to data entry clerks and maintenance staff. And every voter should feel a vested interest in doing this because they are, after all, the ones paying for all of this compensation.
In the matter of pay, such a board should be able to look at what is being paid in the private sector and establish some sort of ceiling or range for government work. If Lockheed Martin can find somebody to empty the trash cans and vacuum the carpet for nine dollars per hour, why should the taxpayers have to lay out twenty dollars per hour for someone to do the same job at the DMV?
Next, there should be no – read ZERO – “bullet proof” jobs for life once an employee attains a certain level of seniority. Private sector workers are in constant competition to keep their jobs and hopefully advance. Public employees should not feel entitled to any less of a competitive environment if we are to get the most for our money.
Benefits – and in particular, how much the employee contributes out of their check for them – are incentives which private sector employees offer to attract and keep the best workers. They are not some sort of God Given Right enshrined in the constitution. If the average civil engineer at a contracting firm needs to kick in 18% of his pay for his health care and other benefits, is it so unreasonable for the taxpayer to expect the government employee to at least kick in 10%?
None of these ideas are revolutionary or draconian. The private market world works on a system based on competitive pricing. It remains functional and serves the needs of both sides, albeit with some bumps in the road over time. We don’t have to entirely eliminate collective bargaining for these unions – nor does it appear that Governor Walker of Wisconsin is looking to do so – but the special, and dysfunctional environment of Government vs. Labor negotiations cry out for some heavy handed restraint if they are to at least attempt to mimic the efficiencies of the private sector. Governor Walker’s solution may not be perfect, but it has at least spurred a long overdue discussion how to monitor the relationship between our government and the labor unions.