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.
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.
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.