Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's Wrong with Public Employee Unions?

David Brooks has a pretty good piece at the New York Times on the battle going on in Wisconsin between the GOP and the public employees' unions. Brooks notes that public employees and private employees are two disparate species, and their unions are different as well. Brooks writes:
[P]ublic sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

As a result of these imbalanced incentive structures, states with public sector unions tend to run into fiscal crises. They tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit. There is little relationship between excellence and reward, which leads to resentment among taxpayers who don’t have that luxury.
In other words, when public employee unions negotiate with state legislators and governors they're often bargaining with people who owe their careers to the very people sitting across the table. In such an environment the taxpayer doesn't stand a chance. The public employees' unions bankroll the campaigns of Democrats with their contributions and get them elected through their votes. What are the chances that the Democrats are going to care more about the well-being of the taxpayer than of the union to which they owe their livelihood?

The problem is compounded by the fact that the benefits politicians award the unions in return for their support are often long-term goodies like pensions, etc. which won't come due until long after the politicians have retired.

The whole system is a scam on the people who pay taxes, and the ruckus in Wisconsin and elsewhere is due to the fact that Republicans are refusing to play the game any longer. The unions recognize that Wisconsin is simply the nose of the camel, that if they lose their ability to engage in collective bargaining over pensions and working conditions they'll no longer have the power to extort even more benefits from the hapless taxpayer by threatening to withhold services.

This is the problem with a public employee union (I belonged to one myself for a number of years). It's unjust to hold taxpayers hostage to the demands of the union. It's unjust for teachers to hold the education of children hostage. It's unjust for police and fire personnel to hold the safety of citizens hostage, and it's unjust for state workers to hold the checks of the elderly and poor hostage. Workers should have the right to strike against a private corporation, they should not have the right to strike against the taxpayer. Nor should they have the right to negotiate with the very people they elevate to office over how much of the taxpayer's money they're going to be given.

Some in the media are accusing the Wisconsin Republicans of trying to break the union, but if that's what ultimately happens the union bosses will have only their own greed to blame.