February 20, 2011

Fighting Public-Sector Unions and the Engineered Public Pension Crisis

Wisconsin: The Hemlock Revolution

February 18, 2011

TIME Swampland Blog - Revolutions everywhere--in the middle east, in the middle west. But there is a difference: in the middle east, the protesters are marching for democracy; in the middle west, they're protesting against it.

I mean, Isn't it, well, a bit ironic that the protesters in Madison, blocking the state senate chamber, are chanting "Freedom, Democracy, Union" while trying to prevent a vote? Isn't it ironic that the Democratic Senators have fled the democratic process? Isn't it interesting that some of those who--rightly--protest the assorted Republican efforts to stymie majority rule in the U.S. Senate are celebrating the Democratic efforts to stymie the same in the Wisconsin Senate?

An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that.

There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can't be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters. And it seems to me that Governor Scott Walker's basic requests are modest ones--asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, though still far less than most private sector employees do.

He is also trying to limit the unions' abilities to negotiate work rules--and this is crucial when it comes to the more efficient operation of government in a difficult time.

When I covered local government in New York 30 years ago, the school janitors (then paid a robust $60,000 plus per year) had negotiated the "right" to mop the cafeteria floors only once a week. And we all know about the near-impossibility of getting criminal and morally questionable--to say nothing of less than competent--teachers fired. The negotiation of such contracts were acts of collusion rather than of mediation. Government officials were, in effect, bribing their most activist constituents.

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed...of the public?

Despite their questionable provenance, public unions can serve an important social justice role, guaranteeing that a great many underpaid workers--school bus drivers, janitors (outside of New York City), home health care workers--won't be too severely underpaid. That role will be kept intact in Wisconsin. In any given negotiation, I'm rooting for the union to win the highest base rates of pay possible...and for management to win the least restrictive work rules and guidelines governing how much truly creative public employees can be paid.

But we've had far too many state legislatures, of both parties, that have been cowed by the political power of the unions and enacted contracts that force state and city governments to be run for the benefit of their employees, rather than for their citizens. This situation is most egregious in far too many school districts across the nation.

The events in Wisconsin are a rebalancing of power that, after decades of flush times and lax negotiating, had become imbalanced. That is also something that, from time to time, happens in a democracy.

F.D.R. Warned Us

February 19, 2011

James Sherk (New York Times) - “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

That wasn’t Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul, or Ronald Reagan talking. That was George Meany — the former president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O — in 1955. Government unions are unremarkable today, but the labor movement once thought the idea absurd.

Public sector unions insist on laws that serve their interests — at the expense of the common good.

The founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create. Government workers, however, don’t generate profits. They merely negotiate for more tax money. When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers.

F.D.R. considered this “unthinkable and intolerable.”

Government collective bargaining means voters do not have the final say on public policy. Instead their elected representatives must negotiate spending and policy decisions with unions. That is not exactly democratic — a fact that unions once recognized.

George Meany was not alone. Up through the 1950s, unions widely agreed that collective bargaining had no place in government. But starting with Wisconsin in 1959, states began to allow collective bargaining in government. The influx of dues and members quickly changed the union movement’s tune, and collective bargaining in government is now widespread. As a result unions can now insist on laws that serve their interests — at the expense of the common good.

Union contracts make it next to impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones. Union contracts give government employees gold-plated benefits — at the cost of higher taxes and less spending on other priorities. The alternative to Walker's budget was kicking 200,000 children off Medicaid.

Governor Walker’s plan reasserts voter control over government policy. Voters’ elected representatives should decide how the government spends their taxes. More states should heed the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Executive Council’s 1959 advice:

“In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress — a right available to every citizen.”
James Sherk is the Bradley fellow in labor policy at the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.

Battle of Wisconsin Threatens Unions' Political Might

February 19, 2011

Washington Examiner - Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposals for state employee contributions have brought condemnation from the president because they threaten his union-boss constituency.

Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker - elected last November along with GOP majorities in both chambers of the state's legislature -- wants his state's public employees to contribute half the cost of their pensions -- up from zero -- and about one-eighth of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

These contributions are less than the private-sector average, but you wouldn't know it from watching the 25,000 unionists and supporters from around the country who have descended on the capitol building in Madison, carrying signs comparing Walker to Hitler. Madison has become ground zero in the battle for the future of America because there is a lot more at stake than the simple concept that well-paid state employees should share the sacrifices that hard economic times have imposed on the private sector workers who pay their salaries.

Walker's proposals have also brought condemnation from President Obama, because they directly threaten his favored union-boss constituency. Walker wants to let state workers vote each year on which union (if any) they want representing them. He wants the state to stop garnishing workers' wages on the unions' behalf, and to exclude state benefit packages from future negotiations. The unions, whose object is to underwrite the election of politicians who care more about them than taxpayers, fear that their days of cutting sweetheart deals may soon be over.

Thousands of Wisconsin teachers who called in sick last week somehow managed to stagger over to the state capitol building in Madison to participate in protests, forcing many school districts to cancel classes. In various interviews with Wisconsin newspapers, teachers at the capitol expressed frustration with Walker's plans. We went to the Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction to get the salary data for some of the noisiest teachers, and found that they were making salaries of $67,000, $68,000, $58,000, and $59,000, with benefit packages of $18,000, $20,000, $12,000, and $29,000, respectively. Depending on the school district and the teacher's education level, Wisconsin teachers can expect to make that kind of money and enjoy such benefits after several years of experience. This seems more than reasonable for a job that only runs nine months out of the year.

The strikers are doing so much better than most of Wisconsin's private sector workers that their complaints evince a gross disrespect for taxpayers, who on average make much less. The average single-income family in the state brings in $40,500, and the average worker pays 20 percent of his employee health plan.

Wisconsin's state workers are not exploited. Their union has become far too politically powerful and now feels threatened, and that's the real reason union leaders called for the protests. Obama, who as usual has reflexively taken the side of unions, should be ashamed for trying to crush reforms that are long overdue in Wisconsin and virtually every other state in the nation.


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