What Footing are the Unions Right On

Posted by By at 22 February, at 10 : 51 AM Print

The week’s events in Wisconsin, which are spreading to Ohio, showed some stark contrasts on our political landscape. These fights are, in many ways, a precursor of other fights to come over “third rail” type issues, especially entitlements.

The fact is we are witnessing amazing events all over the world. The images of teeming masses of angry citizens yelling angrily at their leaders has a similar visual look; it is in the substance of their message that the differences are both obvious and telling.

Because these issues are complex, I am going to break this into two pieces, with Part I today and Part II tomorrow. Here, are my observations from the past week.

1. There is a striking difference between a quasi-grounded progressive and an ideological one. Compare these two statements, both by iconic progressives. The first is one I would wholeheartedly endorse:

“Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

The second, while less thoughtful and more brief, lies in stark contrast: “some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like an assault on unions.”

The first statement is from a letter from the king of all Liberal Democrats, FDR. In the full letter, (which you can read by clicking on Rock The Capital ) – he makes the eloquent case against the exact thing we are seeing in Wisconsin.

The contrast between FDR’s responsible siding with the orderly functioning of Government and BHO’s knee jerk – and politically expedient – response in favor of a treasured constituency against a democratically elected body staggers me.

Keep in mind that the “right” to collectively bargain is a wholly political creation when it comes to public sector employees. Let me repeat that, because it is noteworthy: the ability of public employees to organize and collectively bargain is not found in the Constitution, natural law, or our long standing political tradition. A favored constituency used political clout to create a legal right to do so, even against the inherited wisdom of the father of American progressivism.

Not surprisingly, Wisconsin (long known as the birthplace of the progressive movement) was the first government to allow it in 1959. Think about that when you see those screaming teachers losing their minds about how it’s “for the kids:” does anyone think American education today is superior to the same in 1959?

The contrast between FDR and BHO just makes it clear how much ground the far left has gained in the last 80 years. When FDR sounds like the rational conservative in a Labor debate, one also has to wonder what footing the Unions are right on in this fight.

2. The striking contrast between Public Union reality and, well, Reality. The fight over bargaining rights I can at least understand (although like FDR, I would never have permitted government employee collective bargaining for wages and benefits). But this is more—much more – for the Union leadership class around the country. The Unions are engaged to the hilt because 1) Public Sector unions are the only ones really growing, and where there is and real money to leverage and 2) once the damn breaks and the public unions are brought in line with economic reality the rest of us will ask “why not us?”

Let’s start with the contrast between public-sector unions and private sector economies. For years, the unionized portion of the private workforce has been in decline. Federal standards mandating the length of a work-week, safety standards and workplace behavior have taken almost all but the wages and benefits aspect of Union power out of play. With non-economic issues essentially legislated to the limit, and with Union dues cutting into take home pay, more and more of the workforce moved away from Union affiliation.

That is important to note – when Unions first formed they filled a necessary void to protect workers and set conditions; as society adopted – and even improved on – those standards, the role of Union representation became largely about managing the economic relationship between the workforce and employer – almost nothing else.

And, for the most part, the Unions that remain in the private sector are fairly useful in that aspect – it is much easier, for example, for mass employers to manage large workforces with set standards and pay scales rather than wasting the inefficiency of evaluating each and every employee’s relative value.  But those Unions, in the main, understand that they MUST accept the economic realities of their industries – when there is simply no money there is no money (until we bail out the employer to protect you, but that’s for another day).

Contrast this with the Public Sector Unions. They are growing at a rapid pace, and just this past year, for the first time in our history, public employees made up the majority of Union members in this country. The reason is obvious – there are no “financials” to get in the way.

Public Unions can hold us hostage in ways no private Union can. A teacher strike in 1958 might not have hurt as much (far fewer two income homes). Now? It’s a disruption that ripples into every business in town as parents (and private-sector employees) struggle to find people to watch their kids. Or how about trash collection? Does anyone else remember the strike in New York City, in JULY, a number of years ago? You want to talk about a bargaining position.

The public-sector Unions know this, know they have leverage, and know that they have the added benefit of having essentially their own political party. This allows for them to be totally disconnected from reality.

Otherwise, how else can you explain they way they have handled the Wisconsin mess? By shutting down schools, they radicalized their opposition as much as their support. And by letting EVERY story include how mad they are about the imposition of a12.6% co-pay and a pension contribution shows how little they feel the rest of our pain. If they wanted to win the point they would agree to the co-pay and the pension and fight like hell over the issue that may have legs – collective bargaining.

But they aren’t doing that. The public-sector Unions are disconnected from reality because for two generations “its for the kids” worked. But with median salaries between $60-$85,000 a year based on jurisdiction, amazing benefits and a pension throw in, the general public is not going to side with the politically privileged when they are working two jobs and still might lose the house.

One last thing to think about when you see this mess: Why are unions like SEIU and AFSCME so in favor of Obamacare? Could it be that a single-payer system would render all of the healthcare industry government workers and dues paying members? And can you imagine the power the federal healthcare workers union would have?

Stand tall, Gov. Walker.  Stand tall.

More tomorrow.

This post was written by:
- who has written 77 posts for Rock The Capital
Scott Paterno is an accomplished policy analyst and political consultant based in Hershey, PA. Mr. Paterno, never one to sit still, has practiced law, run for a house seat, and worked as lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington. Paterno is Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Energy Fund and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Political Science. He is happily married with three children. - Email scottp

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