Monday, February 28, 2011

Government & Labor Unions

The “Wisconsin Affair” centers around whether or not public-service employees should be availed of the collective bargaining process in the determining of their wages, perks, vacations, etc. The Wisconsin governor would have it that the unions should bargain on wages only, but wages have more to do with the cost of living than with the bargaining process. Actually then, at least in Wisconsin, it has to do with whether or not public-service employees should have the right to unionize.

Soon after President Reagan took office in the 1980s, the air-traffic-controllers called a strike and most workers walked off the job. Their leaders attempted to get them to return to work, most likely when they realized that the controllers had signed-on under the condition that they would not strike and that, whereas they’d probably been given some latitude before, such was not to be the case with Reagan, who simply said that if they didn’t return to work they had quit, not actually been fired.

Reagan made it stick, though the consensus seemed to be that the nation’s air-transportation system would grind to a halt or be damned by terrible accidents. Reagan demurred, insisting that new hires would take up the slack. Legally, he was correct and determined to see the law upheld, which was his sworn duty. The system returned to normal in a relatively short time and there were no serious accidents accruing to controller failure.

In another life, I was a member of a transportation union, a locomotive engineer. Should this put me on the side of the protesters in Wisconsin or on the side of the governor? The difference between me and the protesters is that I worked for a private company responsible to its shareholders, whereas the protesters work for state government. If I went on strike, other railroads took up the slack. If public-service workers strike, they shut down the state, including schools, law enforcement, fire protection, etc.

If all the railroaders in the nation go on strike the government simply puts a stop to it, just as Reagan did with the controllers, even though the railroaders work for private companies and the truckers could move stuff. In 1946 during a nationwide strike, President Truman (a labor-oriented democrat) appeared before Congress for permission to take-over the rails and run them using the army. At that point, the strike was settled.

The railroader or any other non-management worker has nothing but the union to stand between himself and his employer, which is mostly concerned with the bottom line and not the welfare of its workers, while in government employees are usually protected by everything from tenure to the merit systems to review boards. It’s extremely hard to fire a government worker without well-documented cause, and it’s hard even then. The media is filled almost daily with accounts of former government workers winning lawsuits against various governments…much of the time justifiably.

Wages and all perks in the private sector are negotiated by managements and labor unions. In government, such negotiations are conducted by the proper authorities and unions but are actually controlled by legislators who receive huge amounts of money from labor unions to do their bidding. In the private sector, unions have to understand that their companies must compete successfully with others in order to maintain jobs. In the government sector, there are deep pockets filled by the taxpayers and ripe for the picking. This is why employees in governments are now far ahead of their counterparts in the private sector with regard to both wages and benefits. Governments do not compete with anything for survival.

In Wisconsin, teaching salaries averaged $52,644 in 2009-10, according to the National Education Association, with most school districts offering benefits that range from health insurance to retirement plans. Median annual wages of kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers nationwide ranged from $47,100 to $51,180 in May 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor. In Kentucky, a teacher can retire after 25 years, draw the life-long pension, get another job and work out another pension. Where else can that kind of boondoggle be found?

This is not a brief against unions, only the suggestion that government-employees should never work under collective-bargaining protocols. They should never have the power to shut down any part of government and they should never be overpaid vis-à-vis the private sector, no matter how much they contribute to lawmakers in either dollars or sweat-equity.

And so it goes.
Jim Clark

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