Governor Walker of Wisconsin is striving to midwife a new legal order corresponding better to present economic reality than the old one does. Union busting was a moral crime in 1911. Today it’s a tool of progress.
Some historical reminders:
In 1911, industrial workers doing painful and dangerous work were also badly paid. They organized in a second wave of labor unions collectively to bargain to improve both their working conditions and their pay. Their adversaries were owners of privately owned companies and stockholders of publicly traded companies. Stocks were concentrated in few hands, ownership of private companies in even fewer hands. Only fairly prosperous to very rich individuals owned stocks. In 1911, labor unions were organizing the miserable and the merely poor to extract from the rich a bigger share of what they produced together. Theirs was largely a fight between the poor and ill-treated, on the one hand, and the rich, on the other.
Reel forward 100 years. In 2011 most union members are public employees, including teachers. They are better paid than workers in the private sector. If you combine all benefits, of all kinds of workers, public sector workers earn twice more than the other guys, on the average. It could be because they, the public employees, are somehow more qualified than their private sector cousins. Somehow, you don’t hear the unions make that claim. Or maybe, they work longer hours or simply harder!
Most public employees, especially teachers perform work that is not especially painful or dangerous (some do: cops, firemen, prison guards.) In addition, most public employees have tenure in fact: They are extremely difficult to fire. It used to be the case that they had tenure instead of the right to belong to unions and to strike. Now, they have both. It does not look fair. Furthermore, they often have a monopoly in fact: If I don’t like the building inspector who tells me what I cannot do with my own house, I don’t have the option to go to another. Public employees’ performance is unlikely to improve much, whatever they do, because they are protected from the improving effects of competition.
Digression: university tenure is completely different: It’s a very competitive process, including in public universities. In public schools, I think all you have to do is hang in there, keep your nose clean for a few years and you become immune to firing.
A lot has changed since 1911. Public employee union claims are always actually a dispute with taxpayers. Union members who make more money are extracting money from those who make less money. The situation has turned around 180 degrees from 100 years ago. From the poor against the rich, it has become the rich against the poor.
In the private sector, unions are still competing with owners, stockholders, but now, the stockholders are Mr and Mrs Everybody, not a bunch of rich people (over 50% of American households hold stock or bond) Interestingly, the largest share-holders of American companies are … labor union pension funds.
The privileges won by union members in the public sector are now great enough to threaten to bankrupt states and cities.
Under these current conditions, union busting has become a public safety duty.
Unions are losing the public relations battle, I suspect. “Union busting” does not inflame as it used to. The words remind you of a historical movie. Similarly their nasty habit of restricting the term “working Americans” to teachers who earn $60,000 a year and to firemen who make $100,000, does not sit well with carpenters and metal workers who earn $30,000 in a good year. Thanks to the Wisconsin confrontation, I, myself, discovered that a lackluster high-school teacher in NY could retire at 55 and die having earned much more than I retiring at 65, and live better in the meantime. (I am a retired university professor. I can’t help but remember that many of those high-paid, spoiled public-school teachers are my former “C” students. I said, “many” not “all.”) The solidarity loaded terms, such as “union busting” and “American workers” used to trigger automatically, does not go far nowadays. I think it’s mostly counterproductive. Nonetheless, they can’t stop, on television or elsewhere. As usual groups are prisoners of their own language. They cannot see beyond it. That’s how they lose, at least, in peaceful societies such as ours.
Many of the union and pro-union demonstrators in Wisconsin are both honest and honestly blind and deaf. Their indignation is not feigned; it’s not cynical. A pleasant-sounding Salinas city worker called my radio program yesterday (3/6/11 on “Facts Matter” on KSCO Santa Cruz 1080 AM, Sundays 11 am to 1 pm.) He told me politely that I was probably mistaken, that I was probably thinking about the overpaid muckymucks, his bosses, not of ordinary city workers like himself. Of course, I asked him a few questions about his situation. I did not ask his name or what his job was, nor his salary. He volunteered that he earned less than people doing the same work on the outside. I believed him. Then I inquired about his retirement benefits. It turned out that he will be a able to retire at 55 with 60% of his pay guaranteed, forever. That’s beginning in his job at the age of 25. He had not thought through the fact that he might likely live off his retirement benefits for as many years as it took him to earn them. He appeared not to have realized that at 55 most people work, that he could take another job and possibly end up with 160% of his current pay, at least for a few years. He did not seem to be aware that private sector workers of all kinds today wonder if they will be able to retire at 67. The guy, again, obviously a nice person, had not thought about the rest of us who pay his salary and his benefits. That’s what happens when you are protected from life and live among others who are equally protected.
A harsh-sounding few words about the teachers: Wisconsin students don’t perform well overall. I know it’s not necessarily the teachers’ fault. Other factors matter for sure. But, I am left with the following inescapable inference: Either, they are not good teachers by and large, or teachers are not very important. Either way, they can join the rest of us and accept some sacrifices.
PS For all this, I am in favor of the right to collective bargaining, not a right protected by the Constitution, but an important right nevertheless. The reason is that I think one cannot expect an individual, or a small group, to stand up to a large bureaucracy that employs him or it. That’s true whether the bureaucracy is a government entity or a private company. Recourse to the courts is difficult and expensive for everyone, especially for the individual(s) seeking redress. Fairness requires unions although they promote unfairness right now.
Read my essay on this blog: “Karl Marx Was (almost) Right.”