Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Union-bashing deconstructed

It is always fascinating to see how, in comments posted to any article regarding unions, there will be at least a couple of vehemently anti-union opinions. Invariably another commenter rebuts these arguments, but rarely with such clarity as shown by Anon 1972, commenting here at the Chronicle of Higher Education Review site in March:

Oh, and. In answer to the twin objections that (1) "Public employee unions .... do nothing for the public those employees are supposed to serve" [rburns] and (2) "Union membership got me nothing that I did not already have except a lighter take home check" [lbothwell3]:

(1) Unions are not designed to help anyone but the workers they protect. Public sector unions do *indirectly* help the public by (a) keeping wages and benefits at a level where the public sector can effectively compete for highly qualified workers (if you think poorly of the quality of the work your public servants are doing for you now, I guarantee you'd be even less satisfied if those jobs paid Wal*Mart wages) and (b) setting a standard for pay and benefits more generally that goes some way toward bettering the conditions for all (because business must then compete for highly qualified workers by also offering a livable salary and benefits). Anyone who has studied any labor history at all knows that we only have weekends off, sick leave, workplace safety, compensation for overtime hours worked, etc., because unions fought for those benefits -- often through protracted and bloody strikes (not just collective bargaining). I personally really enjoy having weekends off -- indeed, I feel I *need* that time off in order to be productive during the working week -- and I would not relish living in a pre-WWI world where 7-day, 60-hour work weeks were the norm.

But, the bottom line is, it's not up to public-sector unions to worry about saving the public money. It is ludicrous to demand that of them. That's (theoretically) what we have politicians for, and when both sides play fair, the balance works. The problems arise only when -- as currently in Wisconsin -- one side tries to rig that game so that they are holding *all* the cards.

(2) It is deeply ignorant to say "Union membership got me nothing that I did not already have except a lighter take home check." First of all, see above: much of what you "already had," you ONLY had because of unions -- because of the organized labor system of which your own union was a small part. Secondly, you can't actually know what you would have had, or not had, without the union. It's a counterfactual, not susceptible of proof.

A lot of people no doubt do feel that they pay their union dues for nothing, because they don't understand how the sheer existence of the union protects them from abuses that their employers might otherwise engage in unchecked. But the proof is in the data: all the statistics show (regardless of whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing) that unionized workers enjoy better job security and better benefits than non-unionized workers, and they tend not to be among the 14% of Americans who live below the poverty line. So whether your union appears "active" or not, by simply belonging to it you are joining the race to the top, instead of the race to the bottom.

One of the things I especially liked was the demolition of the argument that collective bargaining, by public sector unions, is inherently unfair to taxpayers. If taxpayers elect responsible managers, who maintain a reasonable balance between revenues and services, then the union contracts they negotiate cannot destroy the public budget. If those elected and appointed to negotiate with public unions choose to underfund pensions for decades, spending the money on cronies and other foolishness, why should the unions be asked to pay for their incompetence? Or, if a state or local government negotiate poorly, is that the unions' fault? Just like in the private sector, all the parties to a negotiation naturally seek to get the best possible deal. From my own knowledge of teacher unions i would have to say that any "sweetheart deals" they may have once enjoyed are now a thing of the past. It is a reflection on how terribly non-union employees are now treated, that they could regard the modest pay and pensions of teachers, firefighters, and police, as "extravagant."


Underground Politics said...

I don't think people understand how important unions are for police, firefighters and teachers. These are the people who protect, serve and teach us and they're always there when we need them. I think people take them for granted too often and it's really showing in this union busting stuff that's going on.

Ulysses said...

You're right, Underground. A lot of folks don't appreciate how hard they work. Most of these public-sector unions bend over backwards to save costs and provide the best possible service.

Motivated In Ohio said...

If you have a weekend, thank a Union. If you have a bathroom break, thank a Union.
If you work an 8 hr. day or 40 hr. week, thank a Union.
Wages are tied to Union Membership. ALL wages.
http://motivatedinohio.blogspot.com/p/things-every-american-should-know.html Paul Krugman has a video on the rise of the middle class. And Ed Schultz has a graph on Union Membership and pay.