Virtual Voices

These unions have no clothes

Politics

In the 1970s, when I was lad, labor strikes were a common feature of life: letter carriers, transit workers, garbage pick-up. We suffered these disruptions of life and the economic drains that attended them with grumpy resignation. That's modern life, we thought.

Then Ronald Reagan faced down an illegal air traffic controllers' strike in 1981 and Margaret Thatcher broke Britain's powerful National Union of Miners in 1985. Since then widespread disruption from organized work stoppage-essentially, public hostage-taking-has receded into memories of the bad old days. Occasionally we've had to do without baseball or UPS.

The trouble that labor unions present nowadays has taken a different form. It's quieter, subtler, more deadly, and it is unique to the public service worker unions. Ordinary unions unite a workforce for collective bargaining with an employer. The employer wants to make a profit by producing something or providing a service, and the workers are the direct human means of producing or providing it. The workers threaten to withhold their labor, and thus withhold profits from the employer and goods or services from the public, giving them leverage in negotiations for a better compensation contract. The employer and the employees have a clearly adversarial relationship.

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But with public service unions, the relationship is fundamentally different. It's not adversarial, but symbiotic. The government agrees to compensate the employees generously and, in turn, their union contributes generously to elected officials' reelection campaigns. In other words, we make you rich, and you keep us powerful. There's no conflict over money because the government pays their employees with taxpayer money. This creates a powerful incentive to drive the cost of labor far beyond levels that prevail outside of government, and all at the expense of the people whom both government and public service workers are supposedly serving.

Robert Costrell, an economics professor at University of Arkansas, reports, "The average Milwaukee public-school teacher salary is $56,500, but with benefits the total package is $100,005." That's the average. These people live in Wisconsin, not high-rent New York City. These are not the poor, shackled, danger-exposed garment workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

I heard government workers in Connecticut chanting, "We are the people!" Not so. They are what James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10 called a faction: "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." It's right to be paid for your service, but when your compensation agreement promises to destroy the one you have agreed to serve, the arrangement is not only unjust but has irrational blindness at both ends of it.

But something has upset this quiet conspiracy against the public interest. The economic crisis has focused the attention of a cost-conscious public on the chief reason for state bankruptcy, and has brought Republican (read: non-union supported, i.e., union-opposed) governments to power in many states.

One such state, Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature are trying to withdraw legal support for these sham collective-bargaining rights. Governors like Walker are fighting not only for their state budgets, but also for the integrity of their state governments as governments. The question is: Will the state exist for the people in general or will it exist for the few, in this case almost exclusively to pay the salaries and retirement benefits of present and past state employees?

Margaret Thatcher faced a similar issue when she became British Prime Minister in 1979. The miners' union had brought down Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1974, and even Jim Callaghan's Labour government fell in 1979 when the country came to a standstill from uncollected garbage and a thousand other union-built economic roadblocks. Thatcher knew that she would have to face down the unions over where sovereignty and the locus of democracy lay in Great Britain, in the elected government or in the labor unions.

The clash in Wisconsin shows the same question is at issue in America today. The Washington Post's Karina vanden Heuvel expresses a truism among union members: "Madison has become ground zero in the battle for democracy in this country." Yet the union-supported Democrats fled the state to prevent the state's democratically elected legislative majority from passing the bill it thinks best for the people. Teachers on "sick leave," a tiny minority, occupy the state capitol building shouting demands and citing "worker rights" as though these "rights" were in the Constitution and could trump anything the legislature decides by due process of law.

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