By Reynold N Mason JD
Atlanta, Feb. 25th 2011. There was a time when public employees had poor pay, long hours, working conditions that were exploitive, and were generally paid less than their private sector workers. But that was a long time ago. Unions once served a useful purpose. They fought for and won a forty hour work week, overtime pay for work beyond forty hours, vacation time, sick time, and comp time. They had a hand in getting worker’s compensation law enacted, so that a worker injured on the job did not lose everything when he was hurt. Today there are federal laws that protect workers from discrimination based on sex, age, and religion. OSHA is an ever-present eye on the lookout for safety hazards in the workplace.
The Wisconsin law is a good start
In Wisconsin, Governor Walker has proposed a law, which passed the house of representatives passed on Friday, February 25th 2011, that would severely limit the power of public employee unions in Wisconsin. The law would require workers to contribute to their pensions and health insurance more than they now pay under their collective bargaining agreement with the state. Automatic deduction of union dues would end, and future collective bargaining agreements would be limited to one year. In addition, the law requires union members to vote each year to "recertify" bargaining units. The unions have pulled out all the stops. Teachers have stayed away from their classrooms and union activists have staged demonstrations aimed at turning back the legislation. It passed the house but democratic members of the state senate fled the state and are in hiding in the sister state of Illinois.
Today public employees have their bread buttered, thanks to union activism over the last half century. The plight of municipal employees fifty years ago, bears no resemblance to that of today’s. workers. Today a police officer in Nassau County, New York earns an annual compensation package of about $190,000. And they get days off with pay for rolling up their sleeves and donating a pint of blood to the American Red Cross. Over the years the public employee union has sucked the life out of the taxpaying citizens, almost to the brink of bankruptcy. New York and several sister states are deep in the red and unable to meet their employee benefit obligations. It might surprise readers to learn that public employee unions are a relatively recent phenomenon. Roger Lowenstein has written the best account of the phenomenon that I have been able to find. Public employees were not allowed unions because no one viewed their government as an abusive, thieving capitalist out for money. But a seismic shift occurred when, in 1958, New York mayor Robert Wagner, realized that city workers made up a large block of voters, large enough to get him re-elected. He signed an executive order that authorized city workers to unionize. Other politicians of his ilk followed suit. By now the number of people working for the government had grown quite large. Being good vote counters, these politicians saw union workers as a pool of votes. Cities around the country began allowing City workers to join unions, and the government-union complex was born.
Today’s unions have become so powerful that they can paralyze a business with a strike. The UAW could, and has shut down GM and Ford to extract booty for their dues paying hoards. JFK in the 60’s allowed Federal workers to unionize. By the time Reagan came into office The Professional Air traffic Controllers Association, (PATCO) was so powerful that it could shut down the entire air transportation system of the US with a strike. PATCO struck, but President Reagan brought the hammer down. All strikers were fired and the union decertified. Way to go Ronnie. The problem with public employee unions is that once they get large enough, there is no limit to the obligations with which they saddle the City and State. The money and benefit these unions bleed from the State is hidden in plain sight. It is long term health care and fat pensions, paid for with taxpayers’ money. It is harder for Joe Taxpayer to figure out that a bus driver making $70,000 a year is really earning $130,000 because he or she can retire at the age of 41, as in the case in Boston. The unions have developed the savvy of an experienced pickpocket. The tax- paying public never knows when it is being fleeced. The pensions and health benefits are pushed back far enough into the future to be completely out of today’s economic equation.
Public employee pension is a disaster not waiting to happen. The disaster has happened and, in its wake lays the corpses of bankrupt cities and states. All but a pathetic handful of states are now insolvent. They are forced to borrow to make up the large deficits caused, in large part, by unions and their ‘over the top’ demands. It is time for cities and states to examine the things that have gotten us in this mess, and that is just what governor Walker has done. But the unions view this as a threat to their well-feathered nest and, joined by like-minded fellow unionists from everywhere, are battling to keep the gravy train from coming to a stop. But stop it must or Wisconsin is doomed. The state faces a deficit this year in the $billions. Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey and California are in the same predicament. It is disingenuous of these unions, to pretend that they have been blindsided. Walker campaigned on this very issue and voting taxpayers elected him to bring fiscal sanity back to the process. He is doing just that. The election is over. He won.
Unions in their heyday in the 1950’s extracted so much from Chrysler Ford and GM that these giants, “The Big Three,” once on top of the Fortune 500, are now bankrupt. GM is now owned by the UAW and the government. Reasonably people need to look at public sector unions in the context of these economic problems. The absurdity of union demands was brought home to me some years ago, when I happened upon a young woman on the Brooklyn Bridge waving a flag to divert traffic around the construction. She was a flag woman and all she did was waive the caution flag to alert motorists. She was paid $28.00 per hour, union scale as compensation for her exertion, plus benefits of course.
It is time we stop these unions from pushing the rest of us around, while at the same time raiding our nearly empty treasuries. At every contract negotiation, unions push for more pay and more benefits, all the while holding essential public services hostage. Teachers in Wisconsin are staying away from classes, using phony sick notes from sympathetic doctors. It is next to impossible to fire a lousy teacher, because the union will throw tenure at you. They want job security regardless of effectiveness, competency or efficiency.
The public sector unions need to be stopped. They are antithetical to our democratic ideals. What we have in this country is representative government, a process of accommodating the interest of different groups, through institutional arrangements such as the legislature. In setting the public policy, Governor Walker must consider the numerous opinions and interests of all the people of Wisconsin. He must accommodate the wishes of the majority of the citizens of his state. The very fact of quadrennial elections, carry with it, acceptance of the idea of representation of the needs and interests of the people as expressed in the polls. Unions hamper this process by demanding more than their fair share and with their collective bargaining agreements, ties the hands of those elected to see to it that the interests of their constituents are protected. This arrangement does not respect the role of the collective preference of the taxpayers of Wisconsin. We should all wish Governor Walker the best of luck.