“We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more.” Samuel Gompers, May 2, 1890.
Samuel Gompers was in many ways the most pivotal person in the American Labor Movement. An English immigrant and a cigar maker, Gompers was instrumental in creating the American Federation of Labor, or AFL – and the early precursor of the modern labor giant, the AFL-CIO.
In the early days of the movement, there was a lot of laudable goals and victories – in the speech from which the above quotation is taken Gompers makes a stirring appeal for the 8-hour workday, for example. Working conditions 120 years ago were often deplorable; the wages were below subsistence for brutal and dangerous work; and there were no protections from the Government.
So when I hear a 2011 protestor yell, “without Unions there would be no middle class” and “without Unions, there would be no weekend,” I have to agree that they have a point – Unions became an engine for social change that led to a better workplace for all Americans. (Not to mention working with Reagan and the Pope to help Poland in the 1980s, but I digress).
In that sense, Gompers’ early cry for “more” was a positive – and victorious beyond, I suspect, even Gompers’ wildest dreams. The work week stands at 40 hours; child labor laws keep young kids off of shop floors; and Federal labor standards insure the payment of wages in a timely fashion, and that safety standards are imposed. These changes started with the Unions.
But after these victories, what was left? “More.” The simple fact of the matter is, with very few workplace safety issues not covered by federal law, and with a federal floor for wages established, all that is left for a Union to justify its expense (dues) to labor is, well, “more.”
That is OK. There is nothing wrong with wanting more. In a precursor, of Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is Good” speech, Gompers stated “We have been accused of being selfish, and it has been said that we will want more; that last year we got an advance of ten cents and now we want more. You will find that a man generally wants more.”
It is hard to disagree. Human nature always wants more, and it is this desire for “more” that is motivating the protestors in Wisconsin. It’s not about the kids, the people or principle – its about “more” – more money and more benefits at little or no cost.
This economic “more” is all the Unions have left to offer the rank and file. They (might) get you more than market rate for your labors. In the private-sector, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that because all parties are bound by the parameters of the Market. The Union cannot get more money than a company has profits and will keep them investors in business. Likewise, the company – with competitors ready to fill the void – cannot ignore the reasonable demands of labor.
But what about the public-sector unions and their demands for “more?” It is rare – think Reagan and the air traffic controllers in 1981 – when a public- sector service can be discontinued long enough to replace the lost workforce. Likewise, as public sector services are those generally NOT offered by private-sector companies, there are no competitors to fill the void should a strike occur.
By definition, then, the “more” demands by a public-sector union should be subject to a different set of rules than those that govern private enterprise. The very nature of the services provided, and the impact of a strike on society as a whole are exactly why they have the leverage they have in negotiations. Its also why, over the 50 years that such Unions have existed, public employment has moved from a lower paying job with good benefits and stability to a choice plum with higher than average pay and off the charts benefits. Did I forget the fact that such employment has proven remarkably resilient in the midst of the “Great Recession?”
That is why the public-sector union right to demand “more” must be treated differently than the private-sector. Society simply cannot let 7.6% of have enough leverage to bankrupt us all. Quite simply, we must have reasonable limitations on public sector bargaining if we are ever going to have a realistic discussion of how we pay for that which we value. The parameters of the debate MUST be limited because of the nature of the parties to the negotiation.
And we need not look far for a model. Federal employees have extremely limited bargaining rights. They are not, as a class, underpaid – according to a study in USAToday last summer, average salary and benefits package for federal workers was over $120,000 (you can read more about that at RocktheCapital).
This “more” is even more impressive when compared to the averages in State government (around $70,000) and the private sector ($60,000) – and think, the Unions are unrestricted there!
Even acknowledging that a great deal of the Federal “more” is due to the fact that federal employees have a higher percentage of college and advanced degrees than the private sector, the fact that you can make salary and benefits in excess of six figures – ON AVERAGE – without extensive bargaining rights proves my point: limited representation rights have not harmed the Federal employees quest for “more.”
In light of this fact, can we please accept that public-sector bargaining can be limited AND fair to all parties: labor, government, and most importantly, the taxpayer? Because if you disagree with that statement – if you agree that the imposition of the limits proposed in Wisconsin is akin to a totalitarian regime – then the VAST majority of public sector union members are being held captive in an American gulag.
However, if we can see past the rhetoric and look to the functioning examples around us, we can begin to build and manage a system that protects the majority of the workers’ legitimate interest in “more” while at the same time not jeopardizing the functioning of government.
Reagan said it best: “we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.”Wisconsin is where the mess started, allowing public-sector unions in 1959.
Wisconsin is where it must also begin to change. Otherwise, left unchecked, the public sector union drive for “more” will end up meaning a lot “less” for everyone else.
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