There’s been a lot of news about unions during the past 2 years – probably more-so than I can remember compared to prior years. Much of the attention has been negative – both anti-Union and anti-governors that are enacting legislation that curtails everything from collective bargaining rights to wage/pension/healthcare concessions. Seeing as how union membership in the US is in continual decline and there are plenty of contingent workforce companies, you’d wonder Why Now? I mean, where was the backlash when unions comprised a much larger portion of the US workforce? With unions in constant decline, is it kicking them while they’re down?
To flip this question, I’d actually question why Americans have been so accepting and silent on unions for so long.
Public vs. Private Sector Unions
As outlined by CNN, the following statement:
“For the first time in history, most union workers are in government, not in the private sector. So taxpayers, not shareholders, are the ones footing the costs for generous pay and benefits packages — packages negotiated by legislators with no financial stake but much to gain by securing the political goodwill of union bosses.
I’ve always viewed the situation as being vastly different between the union at say, GM, versus say, a teacher’s union. See, if the union decimates competitiveness at GM (and the government doesn’t bail them out), it’s stockholders who are punished and that union ceases to exist. So, stockholders are voluntarily signing up for union performance when they buy shares in GM. As a taxpayer, I have no choice. I’m stuck with whatever deal the union negotiated with whatever local body is in charge. And what’s worse – is these are the same people they elected with union contributions, union drives, political activism, etc. So, the union somewhat dicates their own negotiations! See, in a union, you’re generally forced to pay union dues, which invariably goes into the coffers of Democratic candidates at all levels of government. These democratic candidates in turn, virtually always vote in favor of union-friendly legislation, higher pay, lavish benefits, etc. It’s a balance of course. Municipalities do have budgets and if things spiral too far toward a Greece-like public sector, the rest of the working and voting public would raise an eyebrow. And I believe that’s what’s happening now.
But in essence, I think private sector unions – that’s on companies and shareholders to manage. Public sector unions? Unfair, unethical, and rife with conflict of interest. This concerns me.
Union Members Aren’t Bad People
As a teacher, my wife was union by default [In Defense of Teachers]. I was in a union early on and I supervised union workers for years. They’re regular people, so let’s not act like they’re another species or refer to union members as “them” at all here. In my experience, it’s what an acidic union environment does to some people that is so shocking. It’s kind of like indoctrination or institutionalization in some cases. I used to see bright-eyed, enthusiastic college grads come into the company as a Tech, ready to tackle the world and within a few months, they’re a ringleader for writing up completely absurd grievances, disrespectfully shouting down management at every opportunity, and in some cases, even sabotaging equipment and processes to generate more overtime due to re-work. A complete reversal from their attitude coming in. Conversely, I was often impressed with people that thrived and exerted exemplary work ethic in an environment that doesn’t reward hard work – actually deters it. What would drive this mechanic in the union to go above and beyond every day? Pure integrity, drive and love of company. So, it’s like anything else. There’s good apples, bad apples and a lot of in between.
So, I don’t think individual union members should be villified in the media, on blogs or for political purposes. What needs to be addressed is the impact unionization and collective bargaining is having on our nation’s competitiveness. Without rehashing the same old arguments about pay, pensions, output per worker and the difficulty in terminating problem employees, there’s no arguing that it’s a lopsided equation when it comes to workers versus stakeholders. The more lopsided the equation gets, the less competitive we are as a nation. At the moment, with life expectancy increasing and health care costs skyrocketing, paying workers the current benefits in retirement (pension and healthcare) simply isn’t sustainable. Look at any city, state or municipality budget and it’s unfunded liabilities as far as the eye can see. Something’s gotta change and unions don’t like it. But it’s the economic reality.