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We have two huge problems with Unions and their effect on the growth and cost of government: The “Check-off” and The Unionization of Government Employees.  The exponential growth and cost of our government can be directly linked to these two things.  So what should we do?

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Make the “Check-off” illegal and unions will lose both their power and the stranglehold they now have on politics.  Why?   The “Check-off” is a procedure whereby an employer is required to deduct union dues directly from an employee’s pay and then pay the money to the union.  Like income tax withholding (which in my view should also be terminated) the worker never sees the money and has virtually no control of how it is spent.

Imagine how differently most Union employees (and they do work FOR the Unions, not their employers in most cases*) would feel about the Unions if each month they had to write a check for $30 to $50 for the privilege of having a job.  I think Unions would lose a lot of members and with the loss of members, the loss of cash flow.

Now imagine how difficult it would be for unions to buy influence with their (now not-so-huge) contributions to (mostly Democrat) representatives.  In Oregon Congressional District #1, where I live, newspapers report that over a million dollars has already been spent by Unions on the Democrat running for Congress in a special election in January.  Think if that were only (?) $500,000.  The Republican might have a chance.

Even more important, we need to ban unionization of public employees.  Prior to the late 1950s, it was the commonly held belief that: 1. Governments were not abusive employers and therefor government employees did not need protection from them; 2. Collective bargaining for wages and benefits between government workers and their elected-offical bosses was inappropriate, if not unethical, because an elected official could ensure more votes from a very large block if he made the bargaining easy for the employees.  Most government leaders saw great problems with unionization of government employees.  FDR, who was the most progressive President we had seen to date, was strongly opposed to government employees unions.  This attitude remained until the late 50s.

“All of this was changed in 1958 when an aide to New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. suggested that city workers could be a large enough voting bloc to ensure his reelection. Wager signed an executive order authorizing city workers, notably those of the transit system, to unionize and bargain collectively. As the percentage of Americans working for the government grew, other politicians began to see support for public employee unions as a way to get votes. State politicians around the country allowed public employees to unionize shortly after Wagner’s executive order. President John F. Kennedy (Executive Order 10925 – March 6, 1961) allowed federal government workers to unionize starting in 1962.” (from While America Aged in Philip Greenspun’s Weblog)

Today there are about 8 million government workers in unions while there are less than 7.5 million non-government workers in unions.  Over the past 20 years, Union contributions to political campaigns have gone almost 95% to Democrats and 5% to Republicans. (source)

Leading Union Political Campaign Contributors
1990-2010
Democrats
Republicans
American Fed. of State, County, & Municipal Employees
$40,281,900
$547,700
Intel Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
29,705,600
679,000
National Education Association
27,679,300
2,005,200
Service Employees International Union
26,368,470
98,700
Communication Workers of America
26,305,500
125,300
Service Employees International Union
26,252,000
1,086,200
Laborers Union
25,734,000
2,138,000
American Federation of Teachers
25,682,800
200,000
United Auto Workers
25,082,200
182,700
Teamsters Union
24,926,400
1,822,000
Carpenters and Joiners Union
24,094,100
2,658,000
Machinists & Aerospace Workers Union
23,875,600
226,300
United Food and Commercial Workers Union
23,182,000
334,200
AFL-CIO
17,124,300
713,500
Sheet Metal Workers Union
16,347,200
342,800
Plumbers & Pipefitters Union
14,790,000
818,500
Operating Engineers Union
13,840,000
2,309,500
Airline Pilots Association
12,806,600
2,398,300
International Association of Firefighters
12,421,700
2,685,400
United Transportation Workers
11,807,000
1,459,300
Ironworkers Union
11,638,900
936,000
American Postal Workers Union
11,633,100
544,300
Nat’l Active & Retired Fed. Employees Association
8,135,400
2,294,600
Seafarers International Union
6,726,800
1,281,300
Source: Center for Responsive Politics, Washington, D.C.          

That’s $486,440,870 to Democrats and $27,886,800 for Republicans.

Is it surprising that Unions gain more and more power as they elect more and more Democrats who give them great wages and benefits and who follow their lead in legislation?

*If an employer asks a Union employee to cross a picket line, he will obey his Union boss, not his ‘employer.’

Ever wonder about the term, “Collective Bargaining?”  I do.  It comes from the same root as “the collective” which was the cellular unit of organization of the old Soviet Union.  It implies that all participants in the “bargain” will receive the same treatment regardless of skill, effort, or result.  As it proved in the Soviet Union, the result is the ‘dumbing down’ of the group and the removal of all incentive to excel.

In my view, “collective” bargaining has no place in the Government workplace.  Yet the push for collective bargaining is driving the fastest growing part of the union movement: government agencies.

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Government Employee Union Rally

Why don’t I think “collective bargaining” is appropriate in the government workplace?  Before I answer, be aware that I am not against true union negotiation with employers in the private sector.  That is not to say that I approve of the way union/employer relations are manipulated by politicians/government.  I do think it is the right of an employee, working for a private sector employer, to join with a friend and/or with a number of other people to show a united front when dealing with an employer.  In the private sector, the employer shares both the risks and the rewards of employing others to provide needed labor to do business.  The employee has the risks and rewards of choosing to work for the employer.  If the employee wants changes in the work environment, he can choose to ask for those changes (more pay, more time off, better equipment, different hours, etc.) or not.  And the employer can choose to make those changes or not.  The employee is then free to quit at any time and knows the consequences fall on him alone.  The employer, too, is free to choose not to make changes but knows that the consequences of losing employees or having employees strike will effect him and his business.  Both parties are acting of their own free will and in their own self interests.  In my book, if government doesn’t unfairly restrict one party to the advantage of the other (see my post on the Union push for the “Employee Free Choice Act”) this will result in a marketplace for labor that is ‘self-leveling.’  Neither party will enjoy a big advantage over the other for long.

That is not the case with “collective bargaining” between a union labor group and a government employer.  Things are about the same for the employee, but the employer’s situation is far different.  In the private sector,the employer has his own job, plus his business and the value of that investment at stake.  He will work hard to make sure that any contract is one that can be upheld and which will not put him at a disadvantage to his competition or bankrupt his company.  A government employer differs in that he has only his job at stake, no investment, no customer base to lose, no competition to take his business if he bargains away too much such that costs rise.  A Private employer must weigh the costs of a contract and what it will do to his competitiveness in the marketplace.  The government employer has no such concern.  His only desire is to make sure he gets his job done.  That normally means that his main motivation in a negotiation is to not rock the boat.  Having labor slow down or strike can cause him to look bad and maybe get a bad job review.  There are rarely greater consequences than that.  All the incentives are to make the employees happy.

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As an example, let’s look at Teacher’s unions to start.  In general, government schools have no price competition from private schools.  Private schools must charge tuition where the government schools are provided at no direct cost to the student or his family.  Since the people bargaining on behalf of the government school are either Administrators or School Board Members (or a combination of the two) they have nothing at stake except their jobs.  The Administrator who gives away the store in negotiations may lose his job as a consequence, being fired by the school board.  The school board member may lose his job when the voters reject him at the next election because he was not using school funds wisely.  That is all they have to lose.  And they rarely lose that even if they overspend and do too much for the employees and too little for the customers (students/parents/taxpayers).  That makes it pretty easy to offer or accept benefit or wage or pension terms that don’t cause major probems, at least in the short run, for the school budget.  There is no incentive to hold the line on critical issues of wage, benefits, and working conditions.

Are there any unions representing teachers at private schools?  I don’t know of any.  So why do we have unions for almost all public school teachers?  Union officials would say that if teachers are not represented by a union, they will be taken advantage of by their school employers.  If that were the case, private school teachers would likely flock to the public schools where they could get higher pay and above market benefits.  Why don’t they?  I can only think of a few explanations.  Either they are incompetent, lazy, or poorly trained and can’t get hired by public schools, or, they choose not to work for the public schools.  If the latter is the reason, they must either think that their working conditions are good, or, they think the working conditions at the public schools are not.

Much like the massive collectivization of Soviet farms in the 30s, collective bargaining for teachers has had major effects.  I would characterize those effects as negative in both cases.  The Soviets saw farm production drop dramatically.  “Why should I work my butt off if Comrad Istovich sits around all day and doesn’t pull his weight on the farm?  He gets just as big a ration as I do.”  Teachers represented by Unions see their pay and benefits tied to seniority not performance.  Why should they work the extra hours if the teacher in the class next door does nothing but the minimum needed to keep from being fired?  And, I would argue that being fired from a Union protected public school job is more difficult than you can imagine.  If you want to understand just how hard, google “rubber room.”

In a country that has prospered based on its ‘exceptionalism’, it is hard to understand why we would allow Union collective bargaining to systematically eliminate individual incentives, to aim for the middle instead of the best.  It is hard to imagine why we would let unions become the  true employer of the people working for tax dollars instead of the taxpayers.

We now have unions of firefighters and police officers.  And, unionization of postal workers and Environmental Protection Agency and Tax and Trade Bureau bureaucrats.  Last I checked, all of these employees are hired by agencies that are fully funded by tax and fee revenues provided by taxpayers.  The mission of each group whether firefighters or clerks in the TTB is to provide services for the taxpaying public.  These employees should work for the taxpayers, not for their union bosses.

Next post will explore ways to reverse the trend of unionization of public employees.

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