My friend Kevin Drum has a piece coming out next week in MJ about the decline of private-sector unions. Today, he has a short blog post up about the contremps in Wisconsin and the effort by the new Gov to shut down the public sector unions and change the terms of the public employees employment (greater healthcare and pension contributions, etc.).
I won’t pretend to be the world’s most full-throated defender of public sector unions. If I could trade ten points of union density in the private sector for ten points in the public sector, I’d take the trade in a heartbeat. But that is, obviously, not the trade on offer. Nor is what’s happening in Wisconsin merely hard bargaining during tough economic times. That would be understandable. Rather, it’s an effort to destroy one of the few institutions left that fights relentlessly for the economic interests of the middle class. That’s why conservatives oppose unions of all kinds, both public and private, and regardless of their faults, that’s why they deserve our support.
Well, it’s great that he ‘may not be the most full-throated supporter of public sector unions’, but in fact – as a liberal – he should be their biggest opponent.
No, they don’t deserve the support of true liberals.
First, and foremost, the problem with public sector unions is that have captured state and local politics in the states where they get to play.
In California, the total contributions in the last two years from State & local government employee unions plus Police & fire fighters unions and associations plus Teachers unions is over $6.2 million dollars, which is 15% more than the next biggest donor – construction unions, 73% bigger than the third biggest donor – attorneys, and over 257% bigger than the first real business lobby, telecommunications (I’m skipping Native American gaming as sui generis) – data from the great MapLight.org website.
If you can tell me that the public sector unions don’t have the pink slip to many of our California politicians without cracking up … I want some of what you’re drinking.
And there’s the problem. When state employees are primus enter pares among the interest groups the state has to balance among, we find the state and local governments increasingly setting policies directly for their benefit. And for decades, we did just that; they ate at the top of the trough, and the rest of the folks just ate what was left. And as long as there was lots…it was fine. There’s less now.
Less because yes, we are paying lower taxes than we did in the Clinton years. Less because California shifted the tax/revenue structure around when we passed Prop 13. Less because there’s a recession. less because we’re gradually becoming less wealthy as we have to compete with the rest of the world.
And public sector employees are saying – well, that’s your problem and trying hard to hang on to what they’ve managed to win in the political process.
But who gets hurt by this? The poor, that’s who.
Look, you broadly have four variables that control any system: 1) how much can I spend (budget)? 2) how much do I get for it (efficiency of work per unit spending)? 3) how much do the people doing the work cost (wages)? 4) what do I expect to get out of it (output)?
In a world of fixed budgets, I can increase efficiency per worker, or lower wages and hire more workers (until the efficiency drops), or if my workers are less efficient and cost more, I can do less.
So far all efforts at managing public sector labor costs have involved doing less – we furlough and close offices on Fridays; we cut programs; we shrink the rolls of those who are helped.
We don’t look for efficiency to improve outputs or cut labor costs. Why? because work rules and labor agreements – agreements signed with politicians elected with the money provided by public sector unions – keep us from doing that.
I’m kind of sympathetic to the real people who are facing cuts and who aren’t going to enjoy the ever-escalating prosperity that they signed on for. But I’m not so sympathetic to the fact that almost all of our government programs have turned into jobs programs.
As a liberal, I want an activist government that can actually do things. I want the poor helped, children educated, the ill helped to become well. That cost money, and potentially imposes on my life in a variety of ways. At some level, I – and lots of others – are willing to pay the money and be imposed on – to help the children, the poor, and the ill.
When you tell us that the money is for a bigger boat for the administrator, or that the inconvenience is because work rules – for the benefit of staff – can’t be changed, I’m a whole lot less willing to pay.
It’s hard to go ask for more money for government – which it needs, badly (to get us out of debt, to rebuild our infrastructure, to invest in the ways that California invested in the 50’s and 60’s) – when the bulk of that money goes to people who make as more or more than taxpayers do. It’s flowing uphill, and that’s not how – as a liberal – I think it ought to work.
Are the wealthy and corporate interests playing up these issue? Of course they are. But no one can deny that they are real issues, and it’s both stupid and shortsighted for the liberal commentariat to somehow try and wish them away into some kind of Koch Brothers talking point.
This is an issue we have to deal with, and now is the time. I want to push back public worker unions so that government can do more for poor people and not for the middle-income bureaucrats who are supposed to be helping them.
If there is going to be a showdown now (and the fact that the national unions are piling onto Wisconsin shows that there is), let’s have one.