Monday, February 21, 2011

The trouble with public sector unions

The battle of the budget continues in Wisconsin with Democratic lawmakers hiding in Illinois to prevent a vote on a bill that would restrict collective bargaining by the teachers union to wages only. The idea is to give local authorities in charge of balancing the books, some flexibility.

It's tough to get an objective description of the issues involved. Most pundits will either suggest that supporters of the union are lazy, greedy and irresponsible or that opponents are mean spirited hate-mongers who want to destroy working families. I'm going to dispense with the emotional hyperbole and try to present a logical description of the actual dynamics at play.

Public employees have had the right to collectively bargain for around 50 years now. They cannot strike for a couple of reasons. One is public safety of course. The other is that they generally work in monopolistic enterprises. If Safeway employees go on strike today, I can go to Albertsons instead. If public school teachers strike, my children are denied services due to a dispute I'm not directly involved in. It gives the union a vastly unfair advantage if they are allowed to strike, hence they are not. Some teachers have gotten around this restriction by calling in sick in Wisconsin.

Over the years, public employee unions have gained the right to collectively negotiate not only wages, but other "working conditions". You might think this applies only to benefits such as health care and retirement. It goes much farther than that. Almost anything that happens in the workplace can be called a "working condition". This puts the union in a position to dictate the actual operational details of the enterprise and not just employee compensation.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that unions can and do make large political contributions. They have wisely chosen to favor one party over another (Democrats), which creates an alliance whereby unions help get their folks elected and their folks help the unions get what they want. The result is not a negotiation between two rivals, but a joint venture to capture as many tax dollars as humanly possible. Both parties look out for their best interest and the taxpayer doesn't get a seat at the table.

A simple fix would be to forbid unions from making political contributions. But, since the politicians would have to vote away a huge source of their own funding, that's not likely to happen.

However you feel about the issue, the reality is that Wisconsin and a lot of other states are in deep fiscal crisis. Either the taxpayers have to agree to pay more or the public employees have to agree to take less. It's not good guys vs. bad guys. It's employees and employer trying to deal with reality to reach an agreement everyone can live with. The status quo will not work. The terms must change and the system that lead to this mess must change.

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