Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two Minds On Public Sector Unions

Like many taxpayers across the country, I've watched demonstrations in state capitols in Wisconsin and Ohio with interest and with fear. The interest is two-fold. First, because these public demonstrations bring out all of the best and worst in people; and as one who considers himself a student of the human condition, this is a wonderful condensed study guide. Second and more importantly, because these appear to be the battlegrounds where the financial future of states across the country will be fought. 

The fear is likewise two-fold. I fear that politicians have simply decided that this issue is the 'distraction de jour', and are simply using it to keep us from looking more closely at what government is doing elsewhere. I likewise fear that as government often does, the furor over the subject at hand will cause the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction in some form of demented retribution. This could easily produce compensation packages that leave us a workforce competency level ill-equipped to adequately serve citizens. 

If it seems that I am caught up on 'two's' where this subject is concerned, it might be because I am of two minds on the subject. The first part of my thought is pretty straightforward. A contract is a contract, and a government (like any other employer) does not have the right to abrogate a legitimately negotiated legal agreement, regardless of whether it has discovered that there is political gain to be had, or that it simply doesn't like the one in place. Like other employers, they are not allowed a "mulligan" (legislative or otherwise) when they discover that they made a bad deal. 

There is a both a legal and ethical principle involved here, and attempting operate in this manner is a betrayal of public trust that should be of great concern to all of us. For those of us who cried foul when the feds overruled bankruptcy law when deciding how to treat legitimate bond holders in what should have been done with the assets of GM; consistency demands that we can think no differently. If however, the government or any other employer wants to change the way that they do business in the days going forward and re-negotiate such an agreement with workers on that basis, they certainly have the right to do so. 

The other part of my thinking concerns Unions in general and public sector unions in particular. I am no fan of organized labor, but recognize that they have a legal right to exist and to attempt to negotiate compensation on behalf of their members. Unlike some, I do not believe that this "right" to organize is guaranteed under the right of free assembly in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution however. Oh they can get together any time that they want, they can also exert political influence as an organized entity, but there is nothing in the Constitution that says that their employer must negotiate with them. That employers can be forced to negotiate with such groups is law however, and one that has been created at state levels. 

In fact across the country, there are 'closed states' and 'open states'. In closed states, it's perfectly legal to force a person to join a union in order to get certain types of jobs (something that seems inconsistent for those now crying for freedom). In open or "right to work" states, you are free to take any job you choose without joining a union. These open states do not preclude you from joining such organizations, but do not force you to do so in order to gain employment. 

Because they are state laws, state legislatures have the right to change them. As long as they do so following the rules governing the creation and passage of laws in such states, their efforts are within the rights granted to states under the Constitution. I also think that due consideration should be given to the fundamental difference between union negotiations in the private and public sector. In the private sector, unions negotiate with management over sharing the surplus capital of the company. If the union workers at some point begin to get more of a share than the employer can reasonably afford, that employer probably goes bankrupt, and the jobs are lost. 

In the public sector however, there's not supposed to be a much of surplus to divvy up in the first place (if there was, it would mean we were being taxed too much). When the employee share of revenue in government grows beyond the capacity of the employer to pay for in this case however, they merely generate more capital by raising taxes to cover what might be their purposefully politically inadequate negotiating skills. 

There is also something particularly odoriferous about the concept of a public sector employees union financially supporting the careers of those in management negotiating their contracts. It doesn't take much in the way of critical thinking to see that it is a conflict of interest for these politicians to make decisions on the pay of those contributing to their campaigns. With all of my concern over how things will work out after legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio is finally passed (as it seems it will), I find that I am still of two minds on where this can and should go in the long term. 

While not in favor of having unions in the public sector, I might view this more favorably if the playing field were leveled. I might be willing to concede the right of a public sector union to organize and to negotiate their compensation (and this includes those considered 'safety workers' like police and firefighters), if they in turn would relinquish the requirement that members of their professions have to join a union to achieve employment. I would likewise expect a concession to that level playing field that their employers no long have an obligation to take on the union's responsibility to collect its members' dues.

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