Monday, January 3, 2011

What Exactly Is The Purpose of Public Sector Unions?

In college I took several courses on the history of the labor union movement as well as labor union economics.  I also took a labor law course in law school.  I also was a member of the United Papermakers and Paperworkers while in college.  I understand the reasons for the establishment of the labor union movement and its position in our private sector capitalist system.

I just don't get the rationale when it comes to the public sector.  Nobody else in this country seemed to get it either for years and years since I don't think there were any public sector unions at all before the late 1950's. In fact, it was illegal for most government employees to unionize until well into the 1970's.  In a number of states it is still illegal.

The historical basis for unions in the private sector is based on insuring a balance of power to insure that workers receive a reasonable share of profits and work in safe and sanitary conditions.  Governments don't make profits to share.  They only levy taxes.  In addition, has anyone ever heard of a government worker working in a sweat shop?  They also work in a monopoly situation meaning that if they provide poor service, no service or strike there is no corresponding power by the consumer to go elsewhere as there is with a private sector business that is unionized..

My guess is that public sector unions will come under increasing scrutiny over the next decade.  We are in for a tumultuous period as the issues of government spending and our debt loads are so inextricably tied to these public sector unions.  These interests are firmly entrenched and will not go easily into the night.  We are likely to see many of the things occurring in Europe begin to also occur in the U.S as budget pressures intensify.

One preview might have been the recent snow removal fiasco in New York City where it is reported that the union leadership ordered a slowdown by workers because they are unhappy with proposed budget cuts. Another interesting insight is this editorial in my hometown Cincinnati Enquirer that takes the majority of City Council to task for its recently approved "Fantasy Land" budget.
"The process Cincinnatians have witnessed during the past few weeks has been a disgrace – and evidence that business as usual can no longer be acceptable at City Hall. Council members, some reluctant to compromise after public employee unions and other interests turned the screws on them, deadlocked over a proposed trash fee and a related plan to cut costs through managed competition. They chickened out and opted for neither, hoping that rosy scenarios on items such as police overtime and a tax “amnesty” will keep the budget balanced."

The real issue is the clout the public unions have with their political contributions meaning that ordinary citizens (and the taxpayers) are less important than the public union campaign contributions to many of our elected officials.  
"As we have said, city leaders must be devoted to serving all the citizens of Cincinnati, not just the most vocal interests closest to the political process. And they must fundamentally change the way the city does business. So far, they are doing neither. A majority has yielded to the demands of public employee unions that opposed layoffs, yet didn’t want to make wage or benefit concessions, and went ballistic at the mere thought of competitive bidding – something the real world of private enterprise regards as a fundamental principle.
A compromise seemed possible a week or so ago, where the sides would give some and take some on layoffs, trash fees and competition. But public sector unions turned up the heat on wavering council members with threats, invective and accusations of “union-busting.”
The editorial also cites what has to be one of the most bizarre quotes of 2010 (or any other year) by Diana Frey, the President of the local union that represents some of the municipal workers, that "she would rather be a laid off municipal employee than a private sector employee."  She was responding to the suggestion by some on Cincinnati Council that they consider some form of managed competition for some municipal services.

Whether public unions will survive in the future might very well depend on how responsibly they participate in the needed restructuring of government spending, jobs and pensions over the coming years.

The recent examples in New York City and Cincinnati are not reasons for optimism.

John Hinderaker of PowerLine also weighs in with "Time to Rethink Public Employee Unions".  PowerLine is always one of my favorite blogs.

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