WI debate is an iceberg of policy (and political) implications

Hard to believe a largely unnoticed executive order signed by JFK would create such monumental ripples 50 years hence.  I’m having a very hard time believing we’re on the brink of actually dealing with the issue.  As FDR said and the current intensity of the debate indicates, it’s about much more than wages.

Public sector and private unions are different animals:  the former  have an interest in making government less efficient/responsive (more programs = more members = more dues) and crowd out spending on education and the safety net (funding the easy promises made yesterday that come due tomorrow).  As Daniel Disalvo explains in National Affairs (bel0w the jump) this also undermines democratic accountability:

But when public-employee unions bargain collectively with the government, elected officials partially cede control of public agencies to unelected labor leaders. Many policy choices are then settled in the course of negotiations between office holders and unions, rather than originating with the people’s duly elected representatives. Over the long term, these negotiated work rules can drive public policy in directions that neither elected officials nor voters desire. And once enacted, these policies can prove very hard to reverse, even through elections.

There simply isn’t enough money to pay the entirety of the unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities – something has to give.  In a choice between (a) defaulting on municipal bonds, (b) raising taxes in high-tax states, (c) debauching the dollar, and (d) asking public sector employees to live with something more closely resembling – but still better than! – what those of us paying them live with…  I’d predict (d) and a little (c).  But it’s become such an intrinsic part of the Democratic Party fundraising base and power structure, the fight will be red in tooth and claw.

Here’s a potpourri of some excellent recent columns on the topic: 

David Brooks column in The New York Times

That’s because public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

Kimberly Strassel column in today’s WSJ

…the Democratic and union bigwigs engineering the outrage haven’t directed their angry multitudes at what is arguably the most “hostile workplace” in the nation: Washington, D.C.

It will no doubt surprise you to learn that President Obama, the great patron of the working man, also happens to be the great CEO of one of the least union-friendly shop floors in the nation.

This is, after all, the president who has berated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, calling the very idea an “assault on unions.” This is also the president who has sicced his political arm, Organizing for America, on Madison, allowing the group to fill buses and plan rallies. Ah, but it’s easy to throw rocks when you live in a stone (White) house.

Fact: President Obama is the boss of a civil work force that numbers up to two million (excluding postal workers and uniformed military). Fact: Those federal workers cannot bargain for wages or benefits. Fact: Washington, D.C. is, in the purest sense, a “right to work zone.” Federal employees are not compelled to join a union, nor to pay union dues…

Washington politicians may not know much, but they know power—in particular, the art of keeping it. Even Carter Democrats understood the difference between being in electoral debt to the unions, and being outright owned by them

The debate over public-union giveaways has only started. That debate would benefit were Mr. Obama to explain how it is that Wisconsin is wrong to ask for the same budget flexibility that he enjoys as president. If he’s unable to do that, perhaps the debate ought to be over.

Charles Krauthammer column in the WaPo

…a one-time giveback means little. The state’s financial straits — a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years — did not come out of nowhere. They came largely from a half-century power imbalance between the unions and the politicians with whom they collectively bargain.

In the private sector, the capitalist knows that when he negotiates with the union, if he gives away the store, he loses his shirt. In the public sector, the politicians who approve any deal have none of their own money at stake. On the contrary, the more favorably they dispose of union demands, the more likely they are to be the beneficiary of union largesse in the next election. It’s the perfect cozy setup.

To redress these perverse incentives that benefit both negotiating parties at the expense of the taxpayer, Walker’s bill would restrict future government-union negotiations to wages only. Excluded from negotiations would be benefits, the more easily hidden sweeteners that come due long after the politicians who negotiated them have left.

Chris Christie interview with National Review:

He says he has no problem in principle with “vigorous collective bargaining” so long as the process is “truly adversarial.” Public-sector bargaining, he says, is only a problem “because it’s been done unfairly.”

“In the last round of contract negotiations with state workers, Governor Corzine went out to the steps of the statehouse and said in the mic, ‘I’m going to fight to get you a good contract.’ So I’m like, ‘Well then the fight’s over, right? Who are you bargaining with? Pretty much done, right?’” The other problem, Christie says, is that when public-employee unions don’t get what they want at the bargaining table, they take their case to the (usually blue) legislature. “Now, we go back to the legislature to peel back some of that, and they say ‘Oh well that’s violating the sanctity of collective bargaining.’ Baloney. You can’t have it both ways.”

Jonah Goldberg column at NR

Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal–era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV Cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to The Jungle? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.

Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil-service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

The argument for public unionization wasn’t moral, economic, or intellectual. It was rankly political.

Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.

Yuval Levin at The Corner

When you add collective bargaining to that mix, the unions gain the power to make in private negotiations decisions that should be made in public deliberations—decisions about public priorities and public budgets. And they turn public employees into a formal procedural adversary of the public they serve. This presents some serious problems to our democratic system, problems that traditionally kept even the biggest advocates of unionism from supporting collective bargaining with the government. This is why Franklin Roosevelt said that “collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” It is why George Meany (the first president of the AFL-CIO) said it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Daniel Disalvo column in National Affairs

…as economist Richard Freeman has written, “public sector unions can be viewed as using their political power to raise demand for public services, as well as using their bargaining power to fight for higher wages.” The millions spent by public-employee unions on ballot measures in states like California and Oregon, for instance, almost always support the options that would lead to higher taxes and more government spending. The California Teachers Association, for example, spent $57 million in 2005 to defeat referenda that would have reduced union power and checked government growth. And the political influence of such massive spending is of course only amplified by the get-out-the-vote efforts of the unions and their members. This power of government-workers’ unions to increase (and then sustain) levels of employment through the political process helps explain why, for instance, the city of Buffalo, New York, had the same number of public workers in 2006 as it did in 1950 — despite having lost half of its population (and thus a significant amount of the demand for public services).

Finally, public-sector unions enjoy a privileged position in relation not only to their private-sector counterparts but also to other interest groups. Public-sector unions have automatic access to politicians through the collective-bargaining process, while other interest groups must fight for such entrée. Government unions can also more easily mobilize their members for electoral participation than other interest groups can — since they are able to apply pressure at the workplace and, in many cases, can even arrange for time off and other benefits to make members’ political activism easier. Furthermore, most interest groups must devote a great deal of time and effort to fundraising; public-sector unions, on the other hand, enjoy a steady, reliable revenue stream, as union dues are deducted directly from members’ paychecks (often by government, which drastically reduces the unions’ administrative costs).

Taken together, the intrinsic advantages that public-sector unions enjoy over private-sector advocacy groups (including private-sector unions) have given organized government laborers enormous power over government at the local, state, and federal levels; to shape public finances and fiscal policy; and to influence the very spirit of our democracy. The results, unfortunately, have not always been pretty.

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