Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rainy Day Wisconsin: Union Busting

Arnold Schwarzenegger, former actor and Governor of California, looks a lot better after a few months out of office. Partly that is because California does not look so bad, now that the problems of states like Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois are more in the limelight. Mostly it is because the new fearless leader of California, and its same-old Democratic Party, Jerry Brown, is having to tell his party constituency pretty much the same thing Arnold did: there is no money. We have sucked the blood of the golden geese, the working taxpayers and productive businesses, to the point where we have to wait for a bit of recovery before we can throw more poly ticks into the mix

My heart bleeds for the public service workers of Wisconsin. Public service is a fine thing. I believe in the right of working people to form unions, too. But while Governor Scott Walker, is hell-bent on destroying every union, public and private (except ones that support the Republican Party, hint, hint), that does not mean I feel I need to defend every union, and every union action, no matter what the details.

If the United States, or the individual constituent states, were really based on democratic (rule by the people) principles, what would be the relationship of government to public employees? In a democracy should the public make decisions through its elected representatives, or should public employees be the real decision makers? Should public employees decide their own pay, working hours, and pensions?

What can be good in a private sector union can have negative consequences with public employee unions. Private sector unions provide a balance for ordinary workers against the power of corporations. That does not mean that corporations would always be wrong if they set pay scales without employee input; it does not mean that unions don't sometimes have their own problems, like internal corruption. But a union that asks too much of a business will destroy the business, and hence hurt its own members interests. Smart unions and smart corporations cooperate so that everyone is reasonably happy: stockholders, management, employees, and yes, even customers.

Public service unions can have some good effects. My own take (and I have served on a public school board, and have been observing these matters for decades now) is that some government employees are overpaid, and some underpaid, just like in private industry. Some are workhorses, and some are shirkers, just like in private industry.

The reason anti-union ideologues like Scott Walker make government worker unions the scapegoat for all unions, and for that matter all employees (seen by Walker as an inferior class of people who don't have the initiative to start a business or claw their way into management), is that our political system does sometimes allow particular unions of government employees to get out of control. The unions use campaign contributions and their ability to mobilize members to work on political campaigns to influence state legislatures. In return state budgets get distorted in two ways. Powerful unions (in California that would be police and prison guard unions) get a disproportionate share of the state budget allocated to them. And since each time a budget is done there is not enough money to go around (and that includes tax loopholes for the rich, and make work for well-connected corporations), the future gets mortgaged, usually in the form of promises of higher pensions.

What we need to fix the system is less ideology and more attention to detail. The every-man-for-himself Republican Party needs to stop acting as if every union (and every employee wanting a living wage) is bad and every government employee is an overpaid shirker. Liberal Democratic Party politicians need to stop acting as if every public employee demand for pay and benefit increases is legitimate. Some group of politicians needs to start working for the preservation of the bulk of employees whose only old-age pension is Social Security.

The job of a representative in a democracy is not just to pimp for powerful businessmen and powerful unions. The rest of us, the non-union workers and small business people, would like some representation too. We should all want good schools and good police and some sort of a safety net. None of us need a bloated military establishment or taxpayer subsidies to the rich or a pension system for highly-paid bureaucrats that no amount of taxation can sustain.

Public employee unions should retain their right to collective bargaining. Our elected officials, and the administrators who actually set salaries, need to be tough and fair negotiators. Unless you think the People they are stand-ins for are soft but unfair. Which might be right.

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