Saturday, February 19, 2011
[Beldar] On Wisconsin!
What follows is an edited version of a spirited conversation I had on Facebook yesterday with a smart and principled liberal friend, a fellow lawyer with whom I enjoy arguing politics in absolute good humor. I'll call him "Liberal Friend #2" (to distinguish him from another liberal lawyer friend whom I've referred to as "Friend #1" in our past debates in these pages).
To help make clear who's saying what, I've put the contributions of Friend #2 in blue, I've put the contributions of another liberal friend of his in purple, and I've left my own remarks in basic black):
[Liberal Friend #2]: Join me in supporting the right for collective bargaining! The U.S. has the largest economy and the strongest middle class in the world BECAUSE of unions, NOT despite them! ...
[Snarky Beldar:] Power to the People! I stand in complete solidarity with ... the voting public of Wisconsin, who voted just a few weeks ago for a state government that would stand up to its public employee unions who've been ripping off The People for decades. Zero contribution to either their pension or their health care plans — THAT's what the union is going to the barricades to prevent. And they're doing so through thuggish tactics (e.g., mobbing the houses and implicitly, sometimes explicitly, threatening the families of GOP legislators). I'll grant you, [Friend #2], that in the private sector, unions have sometimes been a useful counterbalance to management/ownership. That's not this at all though....
The rationale for collective bargaining agreements is that they redress an imbalance of bargaining power that favors private management. There is no similar justification for public sector employees because the government (in a democracy) already, by definition, is carrying out employment policies for the benefit of everyone in the state. Public employee strikes are typically illegal, not because the gov't is anti union but because the strikes are used to coerce & intimidate the public (not just private management that's trying to look after private ownership interests).
[Friend #2:] So then you FULLY support private sector unions and would oppose any legislative schemes to dis-empower them as well?
Public employees should have the same rights as private employees, for the VERY reason we see coming to fruition in Wisconsin. When some right wing governor takes office, he should not be able to unilaterally decide "all public employees take a 5/10/20/?? percent pay cut!"
Those employees should ABSOLUTELY be part of the process and have a place at the table where those discussions take place.
There is NO reason to make them sit silently in the corner while their livelihoods are subject to the whims of political expediency. Taking away their collective bargaining rights paints a target on their backs a MILE WIDE for any other politician looking to score points in the future.
[Friend of Friend #2:] ... I don't think you can honestly state that teachers and other public servants have "ripped off" the system, they negotiated for what they could get — that American way thing conservatives always talk up. Or is that only for the rich and powerful?
[Snarky Beldar:] I'm not urging the repeal of the National Labor Relations Act, no. I do oppose efforts by the Dems (so-called "Card Check") to do away with employees' rights to vote for or against unionization via secret ballot — there's history of intimidation by both management and labor when individual employee votes can be tracked. And [Friend #2], this isn't just a "right wing governor." It's a conservative governor backed by a conservative state legislature — DEMOCRACY. Elections have consequences, and if the voters of WI don't like what their most recently elected legislators and governor do with regard to public employee contracts in a near-bankrupt state budget, then by all means they can throw the bums out and put their own bums in, who presumably can restore collective bargaining. I don't see that happening, because the fact is that the public wants accountability. They want results. They want to stop shoveling money into the black maw of public education while test scores continue to drop and even terrible teachers can't be fired. They want public employees to at least make SOME contribution to their own retirement and pension plans, just like the rest of Americans do — not get a gold-plated benefits package that's theirs in perpetuity.
Lest you think I'm anti-teacher or anti-public school: My paternal grandfather and two of my aunts taught in the public schools. My mother was a teacher and eventually became the highest-ranking woman administrator in the Austin ISD's special ed program. My sister taught blind and deaf kids at the Texas State School for the Blind, and then taught elementary school for normal kids for several more years. ... [A]ll four of [my] kids have gone exclusively to public schools[, as did both I and my ex-wife]. And my oldest daughter is an elementary education major at UH right now. I'm pro-teacher and certainly pro-student and pro-public education. None of those stances conflict with being anti-public employee union, though. Unions will start representing the interests of kids as soon as students start paying union dues.
... I concede your point[, Friend of Friend #2,] that the existing contracts were agreed to by the state. I'll concede an implicit point, too, which is that unions not just in the US but throughout the western world have been very clever in focusing on benefits rather than just wages, and in particular that they've been very shrewd negotiators on long-term benefits, taking full advantage of the natural tendency of legislators to fixate on the short term and the simple (often at the expense of the long-term and the profound). The voters of WI have now decided, however, that the legislators and governor they'd previously entrusted to negotiate on the public's behalf with their public employee unions were doing a really bad job — basically, giving away the store — and that that's a big part of why there's such a budgetary crisis facing Wisconsin. So the voters fired those guys. They brought in new guys who promised to make changes. So now, of course, the Party o' Hope-'n-Change is endorsing mob tactics to subvert the legislative process and preserve the status quo (i.e., to continue the state's slide into bankruptcy). The rank and file of PATCO paid the price when their leadership thought they could face down Ronald Reagan. I'd hate to see a similar fate befall Wisconsin's rank-and-file teachers, whose leaders are leading them off the very same cliff.
[S]ome time over a few beers, ask me about the [such-and-such] case. It's my only personal foray into labor law, but it was a really huge one, and it's definitely colored my views on labor relations — and not in a conventionally pro-management fashion, either: After that trial, the guy I ended up going out and getting drunk with was my opposing counsel, the top lawyer for [the] union. (But neither of us wanted to go drinking with the top guy from the Department of Labor — heh.)
[Friend #2:] Are you suggesting that the state employees in WI simply give up ALL rights to collective bargaining without a fight, and just HOPE that someone comes into office willing to give salary increases when times are good? I think the odds of a government official simply volunteering to do so are slim to none, regardless of party affiliation.
And hey, NO ONE likes to drink with federal lawyers, they are all WAY too serious!
[Snarky Beldar:] [Y]ou can't have it both ways. You can't insist that democratic government is good, and then turn around and immediately insist that people need special rights to level the playing field against the big bad democratic government. If government is well run, then it will pay a competitive wage and offer competitive benefits because that is in the public's best interests; and yes, what's "competitive" means it will be set by the market (including market alternatives, e.g., private schools). They have no legitimate NEED for collective bargaining. But to answer your question directly, no, I don't expect them to give up anything voluntarily, I expect them to follow their leaders off the cliff of public opinion because their leaders are greedy and selfish and, frankly, not too bright (see again the PATCO example).
[Friend #2:] I'm not really sure I see the conflict between democracy and collective bargaining.
[Snarky Beldar:] I'll hold my peace (*wild applause*) ... after sharing these words with you: "All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress." The speaker? FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT.
UPDATE (Sat Feb 19 @ 1:30pm): Contrary to the impression one might get from my discussion yesterday, the Wisconsin fight is not about an absolute abolition of collective bargaining for public employee unions generally. While many states already outlaw collective bargaining by public employees either in whole or in part, Gov. Walker is mostly trying to roll back an increase in Wisconsin public employees' collective bargaining rights that was previously granted by a Democratic-controlled state legislature. And the unions have agreed in principle with the notion that their membership ought to share in the costs of pension and health-care plans. According to the Wisconsin State Journal (if you dig down into the nitty gritty details of their report):
Top leaders of two of Wisconsin's largest public employee unions announced they are willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker's plan, but will not accept the loss of collective bargaining rights....
Walker's plan calls for nearly all state, local and school employees to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. That would save $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years, the governor has said.
The measure also would prohibit most unionized public employees, except local police and fire fighters and the State Patrol, from bargaining on issues besides wages. Wage hikes could be negotiated only if they don't exceed the consumer price index.
The reason the unions — and the Democratic Party — are treating this like Armageddon is that it's the health-care and pension benefits where their members have made out like bandits in the past. Legislators have pretended to "hold the line" on wages while giving away the store on benefits that would be paid for by some future state legislature in some future year. That's exactly why so many states are now flat broke, or on the brink of that.
UPDATE (Sat Feb 19 @ 9:30pm): By the way, in Texas and a dozen other states, public employees have never had the right to collective bargaining, even on wages. Keep that in mind when you hear that Gov. Walker's about to make the sky fall.
I'm curious, though, what the explanation is for exempting police unions. If there is one (other than "They're too powerful already for us to mess with"), I can't immediately think of it.
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(1) DRJ made the following comment | Feb 19, 2011 4:57:27 PM | Permalink
If you are going to call yourself "Snarky Beldar," then Mr. Purple should be identified as "Snarky Friend of Friend #2." He's far snarkier than you.
(2) Captain Ned made the following comment | Feb 19, 2011 5:03:42 PM | Permalink
The real issue in Wisconsin is that Walker seeks to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state and thus prohibit involuntary wage deductions of union dues. Union members would have to voluntarily forward monthly dues payments to the unions under his plan. This, and only this, is why the unions went nuclear. Walker directly threatened their cash flow and, by implication, the cash flow of public-sector unions nationwide. That's why Andy Stern's Purple Gang is there; that's why they're blockading the Legislature. They know that if this one domino falls the jig is up for the rest of them. Without that mandated flow of cash Andy and the Purple Gang lose all of their influence and all of their relevance to the Democratic Party as they really like telling the Democratic Party what to do because they bring the most cash.
When you have the cash, you can direct the outcome. When they no longer have the cash, they have to take the scraps they're given. Andy Stern thinks he don't take scraps, but I expect a market-wide revision in his outlook once Walker prevails (which is just a matter of time).
DRJ, you view me too kindly, but thank you. Anyway, with snark, as with so many other things, "De gustibus non disputandum est."
Ned, I've read other reports consistent with yours, and your point is sound: This is not only about money, but also about power to continue self-entrenchment. There are a lot of moving parts to this, but the individual issues aren't rocket science. (They do require the same degree of mental ability used to balance a checkbook.)
(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Feb 20, 2011 12:29:21 AM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: I complain. Why have all these swell blastings on obscure Facebook pages? Your starved fans would like to see more of the real thing right here...
As an observation, perhaps the firefighters and cops have signed "no-strike" agreements, and in return get exemptions. I don't know if this is the case.
Captain Ned is on to something. His point would be even stronger if he had noted that the big basis for teacher union power is at the local level. It is tough to win a school board election as an avowed anti-union candidate.
Yet another issue is one that union leaders dislike intensely, largely because they can't do anything about it: unions are derivative organizations. Let every union shut down tomorrow, and the American economy would roll along more merrily than ever. Let the managers go out in the manner of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and the story would be quite different. All totalitarian economies have operated without real unions quite well, something the SEIU leadership doesn't like to think about. It makes them feel the way Trotsky did about Stalin... This is why labor unions did not get too far until governments started granting them rights, the British Liberals under Herbert Asquith, the American Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt. The Roosevelt quotation you cite strikes me as disingenuous in the extreme. Roosevelt wasn't bothered by union power right up to the point when his own power was threatened. He saw what American Labor did to business, and wasn't about to let that happen to him. Characteristically, Kennedy missed this point and stuck the rest of our necks in a noose. I wonder if Lyndon Johnson would have granted federal employees the right to unionize? I doubt it; he was much too fond of wielding the whip on his minions.
Mr. Koster, thanks — as always — for your kind words and your comments. Based on press accounts of Wisconsin law, however, my understanding is that Wisconsin, like most other states, already makes strikes by public employees illegal. That's one reason why the public employees who are flocking to Madison to swamp the state capitol need fraudulent "doctors' notes" — they'd be fired if they admitted missing work for a political rally.
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