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Government Workers Don't Need Unions

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TODAY'S New York Times editorial wisely comes out against the proposal to allow states to declare bankruptcy as a union-busting, budget-saving move. (Josh Barro's reasoning against state bankruptcy rings sound to me.) However, I think the Times' goes wrong here:

It is true that many public employee unions have done well during a time of hardship for most Americans. The problem, though, isn't the existence of those unions; it is the generous contracts willingly given to them by lawmakers because of their lobbying power and bloc-voting ability.

The Times' contention that the existence of public-employee unions is not the problem is true, if it is true, only because the unions "fix" a bargaining-power deficit public workers don't have. Without public-sector unions, government workers would lobby their way to padded paychecks, unobtanium-plated pensions, and hermetic job security anyway. Which is just to say, government workers don't really need unions at all. Indeed, the strategic logic behind private- and public-sector unions is fundamentally different. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," as some little somebody called Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it back in 1937.

In any productive joint enterprise, there's a question of how to split the gains from cooperation. Our native sense of fairness tells us that our shares should be roughly proportional to the value of our contributions. But distributive fairness doesn't automatically prevail. What we actually get—whether we get a fair share or get used—depends on our bargaining power. Individual workers with few options hardly stand a chance against managers backed by massive capital. Workers are most likely to get a cut that reflects the value of their contributions when they band together and bargain collectively. "To each according to his or her individual bargaining power" is hardly a compelling principle of distributive justice, which is why institutions that equalise bargaining power, such as private-sector labor unions, make moral sense.

The thing is, public-sector unions don't work like this. They aren't bargaining against capitalists for a fair cut of the cooperative surplus. They're bargaining against everybody who pays taxes and/or benefits from government spending. The question of distribution in democratic politics isn't about splitting up jointly-produced profits. It's about interest groups fighting to grab a bigger share of government revenue while sticking competing groups with the tax bill. Because of the sheer size and relatively uniform interests of the group, public employees constitute a politically powerful bloc with or without unions. As the percentage of the labour force employed by the government rises, the heft of this group only increases. Public-employee unions simply consolidate an already impressive concentration of political bargaining power. Moreover, as the Democratic Party comes increasingly to rely on patronage from the public-sector unions, the determination of Democratic politicians to bargain against the unions on behalf of taxpayers and the beneficiaries of competing government programmes necessarily weakens. For Democratic office-seekers, generous union contracts are "willingly given", as the Times put it, in roughly the same sense that unaffiliated private-sector workers "willingly" accept low wages and poor working conditions.

This leaves us with a superficially ironic situation. The Republican Party emerges as the organised champion of everyone who stands to lose in the fight over the fisc when public-sector unions win. The GOP's base electoral incentive to hobble their rival's main source of campaign cash and voter mobilisation leads it to function as a countervailing force against overpowered public-sector unions to the benefit of rich people, yes, but also to the benefit of less powerful and more needy constituencies within the Democratic coalition. A bit of public-employee union busting at the state and municipal level wouldn't leave government workers vulnerable. There's every reason to believe they'd continue to function as a powerful, pampered political faction. Pushback against public-sector unions would simply make the always-unfair fight over the fiscal commons slightly less unfair, and make fiscally prudent policy slightly less unlikely.

http://www.economist...argaining_power

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Someone made a good point today on "public unions" when it comes to "public money."

Imagine if the military started having unions. Now imagine a time of war and they go on strike.

/ends all arguments for Public Sector unions.

We aren't talking Federal when we talk about 'Public Sector' unions though like in Wisconsin. We're talking state/local.

Alot of those people (especially educators) are paid for with property taxes. Raising property taxes on people who worked hard to earn their home is a horrid thing to do in the name of 'collective bargaining.' - If people don't pay, they lose their home. Just so some union thug and their cronies can have better benefits? That's not right at all. People seem to forget this aspect of things.


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Someone made a good point today on "public unions" when it comes to "public money."

Imagine if the military started having unions. Now imagine a time of war and they go on strike.

/ends all arguments for Public Sector unions.

We aren't talking Federal when we talk about 'Public Sector' unions though like in Wisconsin. We're talking state/local.

Alot of those people (especially educators) are paid for with property taxes. Raising property taxes on people who worked hard to earn their home is a horrid thing to do in the name of 'collective bargaining.' - If people don't pay, they lose their home. Just so some union thug and their cronies can have better benefits? That's not right at all. People seem to forget this aspect of things.

Best arguments against public sector unions are in Canada (of which I was a citizen 1982/03/25 - 2008/05/30) especially CUPE and CUPW (eh, Canuck posties already do things ridiculously slow--to the point that it's oft hard to tell they're actually on-strike), and what's happening now in beerland/dairyland only backs-up that argument!

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Someone made a good point today on "public unions" when it comes to "public money."

Imagine if the military started having unions. Now imagine a time of war and they go on strike.

/ends all arguments for Public Sector unions.

We aren't talking Federal when we talk about 'Public Sector' unions though like in Wisconsin. We're talking state/local.

Alot of those people (especially educators) are paid for with property taxes. Raising property taxes on people who worked hard to earn their home is a horrid thing to do in the name of 'collective bargaining.' - If people don't pay, they lose their home. Just so some union thug and their cronies can have better benefits? That's not right at all. People seem to forget this aspect of things.

Because military union bargaining rights would supersede the duty to go to war when ordered. Yeah, of course. Readers can't be that intellectually lazy to equate those oranges with apples.

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...and a response from another contributing writer at The Economist:

What's the difference exactly?

SOMETHING about public employees' unions certainly feels different from private-industry unions, as my colleague points out. But I'm not sure I follow the way he draws the distinction. In private industry, my colleague thinks, unions make sense because they compensate for uneven bargaining power between owners and workers in the struggle over how to split up profits. Public-sector unions, he thinks,

...don't work like this. They aren't bargaining against capitalists for a fair cut of the cooperative surplus. They're bargaining against everybody who pays taxes and/or benefits from government spending. The question of distribution in democratic politics isn't about splitting up jointly-produced profits. It's about interest groups fighting to grab a bigger share of government revenue while sticking competing groups with the tax bill.

The thing is, if one were a hardcore neo-classical type, one might argue that private-sector unions are merely bargaining against everyone who buys the products they produce, in an effort to drive up prices. Unions are trying to set industry-wide uniform wages, not argue with the owners of a particular firm about how to divide that firm's profits based on this year's results. That would result in different wages for workers at different firms, which is one thing unions generally don't want. In a platonic-idealist capitalist world where competition is always driving down prices and profits, and where firms have to compete on efficiency, you'd think the only way unions could make more money for workers is by raising prices for everyone.

In fact, the world isn't ideal, there's a whole lot of wiggle room for firms to increase profits by driving down wages, and, as my colleague writes, private-sector unions provide workers with a counterweight to management power in bargaining over compensation. And the evidence is very clear that, while they may also lead to reduced investment, unions provide a wage premium for their workers in the firms and industries where they operate. If you had a situation in which the private sector was largely unionised and the public sector wasn't, you'd expect to see private-sector workers making more than public-sector ones for similar jobs.

In fact, however, we don't have such a world. We have a world in which private-sector unions have shriveled while public-sector ones have grown. And I think it's pretty clear how this came about. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the standard jobs that provided decent salaries and job security for the working and middle class were all pretty heavily unionised, whether private- or public-sector. Auto workers were unionised, police officers were unionised, newspaper reporters were unionised, postal workers were unionised. In my family, one branch was in the (private) ladies' garment workers' union, the other branch was in the (public) teachers' union. (Then there was my Great-aunt Marcia, who was in the Screen Cartoonists' Guild, which Walt Disney claimed was a Stalinist front group taking orders directly from Moscow. She used to draw a mean Popeye.) In that generation, people who worked in government jobs would have reacted angrily to the idea that they didn't have the right to organise and demand better wages the same way their private counterparts did.

Private-sector unionisation began to decline in the 1970s for a reason: private industry had an incentive to seek a non-unionised labour force and to break union control wherever possible, in order to increase profitability. So the auto and steel industries shifted factories to right-to-work states, leading to the tautological result trumpeted in papers like this one that unionised areas have lower rates of investment than non-unionised ones. The government doesn't have such a clear incentive to seek low-cost non-unionised labour. Moreover, a lot of governing tasks can't be outsourced to cheap non-union locales; you can't move an elementary school to Arkansas because the unionised teachers in New Jersey are too expensive. So government unionisation has risen from 23% in 1973 to 36% today, while private-sector unionisation has declined from 24% in 1973 to 7% today. In this environment, it's quixotic to argue that private-sector unions (which are withering) are legitimate, while public-sector ones aren't. It might be interesting to consider the merits of an economy with 50% private-sector unionisation and no public-sector unionisation at all, but that's not an economy we could conceivably get at this point.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/public_and_private_unions

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It is more about productivity rather than profit. (not my job ) ring any bells.


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more whining about republicans. couldn't do much when controlling both houses and the white house, now it's one house and the white house. someone must be blamed!


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