My Turn: Public vs. private: The union debate
By Steve Pender
ěIt is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.î
ó George Meany (1955), president of the A.F.L-C.I.O.
Many of us followed the events as they unfolded in Madison, Wisconsin. The typical explanation offered was that Gov. Scott Walker is trying to break the teachersí unions. This ěunion-bustingî sparked waves of protests; state democrats initially fled the state to avoid voting on the proposed legislation.
Unions have been a driving force in this country for a century or more. They have literally raised the standard of living for millions of Americans. Many claim that unions actually created todayís middle-class. This may be a bit far-fetched, but then again, maybe not. Either way, no one can argue that unions havenít had a beneficial effect on the lives of working people; yet theyíve also been known to abuse their power.
The action in Wisconsin, though, isnít to break the unions, nor take away workerís rights. The issue that is being addressed is the question of whether or not the public-sector (those who work for the local, state, or federal government) should have collective bargaining powers. That is, should public servants, such as police, firefighters, and school teachers, have the right to a general strike if their representativesí and the taxpayers representativesí (legislators) fail to reach an agreement? Wisconsin is attempting to rein in part (not all) of these collective bargaining powers.
In contrast to the public-sector unions, there is no debate over the private sectorís rights to collectively bargain. For example, if Fordís union workers demand (and receive) $200 an hour wages, and this drives the cost of a Mustang to $120,000, the consumer can purchase a Honda instead. In the public-sector, though, if teachers threaten a strike, the state legislators have to do whatever is necessary to avoid this strike. The law requires that states provide schooling for children. The unions would never make outrageous demands, such as 75 percent salary increases (this would turn public sentiment against them), but they can, and often do, keep making small demands each year until they literally bankrupt the state.
While many of Franklin D. Rooseveltís policies were controversial, his decisions were always based on what he believed was best for our country. A strong union supporter, he still cringed at the thought of (public) collective bargaining. He called it ěunthinkable and intolerableî in a letter that he wrote to the National Federation of Public Employees: ěAll Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service Ö The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible Öî
Yet in Wisconsin, the teachers left work and showed up by the thousands in protest, some even bringing students with them. Nurses handed out fake doctorís excuses, but eventually the teachers went back to work. Labor unions bused in thousands of community organizers and union representatives from across the country to continue the spectacle. They are still pushing for a recall vote in hopes of ousting Governor Walker.
Collective bargaining has gained Wisconsinís teachers unbelievable (and unsustainable) benefits, costing approximately $100,000 per year per teacher (including retirees). Since teachers often retire relatively young, their replacement often retires while the replaced teacher is still active and healthy. Add yet another teacher to fill the position; suddenly three teachers are receiving benefits for each position. Cutting one teaching position still leaves one or two retirees drawing benefits. This pyramid scheme has finally collapsed, with Wisconsin now $137 million in debt. Governor Walkerís plan includes no changes to the current collective bargaining system for wages, only for benefits. Yet even this caused several unions to call for a general teachersí strike.
While these events aired on MSNBC recently, a commercial came on advertising a DVD series (I think it was called ěThe Nazis.î) Fascinating actual footage of the National Socialists (Nazis) included one scene showing very young children in front of the camera, chanting some Nazi nonsense.
After the advertisements ended, live coverage of Madison resumed. The protesters were angry and noisy, but thankfully, violence was avoided. What caught my attention, though, were some very young children. In front of the cameras, they were chanting repeatedly: ěHey, hey, ho, ho, Governor Walker has to go.î
Steve Pender lives in Rockwell.
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