Why The Union Backlash? Actually, what was the US Waiting For?

by Darwin on March 15, 2011

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.

What Are Your Thoughts on Unions?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Sustainable PF March 15, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Another way the US differs from my country …
Thing is, what has broken America’s back? Answer me this.

I’d say manufacturing jobs (GOOD JOBS) outsourced overseas. What was lost on those jobs? Mmm, ya – pensions, good wages, benefits.

Who gains here people? It isn’t the taxpayer, or the union guy or any other American who WANTS A GOOD JOB.

Keep killin those good jobs. See where it gets ya.

I prefer to PAY TAX up here and have a decent economy than to deal with the reality I see my friends in the south suffer.


Darwin March 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

That’s a very simplified view of what’s occurring – and unrelated to public sector unions. There’s nothing that Canada, the US or Europe can do to keep old economy jobs from being outsourced other than subsidize those jobs with taxpayer dollars. In the end, it’s a net loss.


VJ March 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Why not rescind those Bank Bali-outs BEFORE going after the unions? Why let those who caused the economic collapse remain in positions where they can cause another one?


Darwin March 20, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Huh? What did TARP have to do with unions? TARP is virtually repaid while unions are a continual death by a thousand cuts to the taxpayer for eternity.


101 Centavos March 16, 2011 at 7:04 am

I agree on public sector unions, it’s like have a fox, or rather, having weasels in charge of the hen house. But not all unions are automatically “bad”. Like companies and corporations, the larger they get, the more potential for inefficiency and system corruption. Smaller trade guilds, on the other hand, sometimes function like they’re supposed to: offering a flexible of source high quality skilled labor to employers, while providing benefits to their members.


Darwin March 16, 2011 at 7:21 am

I suppose trade guilds have some benefits, but then again, you’re likely paying those trades much more than market rate. But if you need them quickly…
Also, with unions, you don’t have to worry about differentiation, lawsuits about wage discrimination, etc. There are some quasi-benefits, but you’d think if you managed the business right and were set up properly, you wouldn’t actually need protection from some of these things.


101 centavos March 16, 2011 at 7:34 am

Not that much more, and it depends on the level of skill required for the job, as well as the geographical location. The one that came to mind was Boilermakers and Pipefitters, only because it’s the one I’ve had the most direct experience with. There are union shops that aggressively compete in the free marketplace, and fully burdened rates for Ontario or Kansas shops are lower than ones in New York, Pennsylvania or California.


JT McGee March 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm

The problem isn’t the unions, you’re right, it is the way that business is done in government.

By its very nature, government knows no recession, nor does it know how to contract. To fund itself, it can either borrow on the backs of the taxpayer, or simply increase taxes on the taxpayer.

The problems are structural. Remove the stupid pay levels and pay grades, and allow for flexibility in teacher salary. In the private sector it’s uncommon not to see a business project paying someone…say, $50,000 to $100,000, depending on their qualifications but in the private sector the pay scale is so rigid it inevitably attracts people who 1) absolutely love teaching (a minority) 2) people who suck at teaching.

It must be comfortable to work in a business where the people who could do your job are in vast over-supply but you’re still guaranteed a yearly pay raise of X dollars just for showing up the next August, on top of an already lofty (as determined by the market) salary.

To that end, I think it’s about time that families start picking up some of the direct costs of administering an education, maybe if only in high school. If parents and children never see the cost of an education, they’ll never value it. I’m steadfast in my belief that this is one of the biggest reasons private schools outperform public schools.


Darwin March 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Good point on paying parents demanding better education. We’re public schoolers, but moved to a good district and pay higher taxes by choice. Same concept applies to health care and many other services.


krantcents March 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

There would be no unions if the government or companies treated people fairly! One of the problems with government is they generally very short sighted. It would take a great deal more effort to actually fix the problems rather than just cut the budget. Education needs to change, but to expect the people in education to fix it is absolutely naive. We are in an increasingly competitive world and need to fix education, instead we cut, cut, and cut. Throwing money at the problem is not a solution either. In the Greek and Roman times, an educated man had certain attributes. Perhaps think about making sure that all of our nation’s children are educated. At one time we were the best in the world, all the changes that has occurred since has only hurt us.


Darwin March 16, 2011 at 9:58 pm

There are no easy answers. But talking about children…burdening out children with the Trillions in debt we keep tacking on each year is morally reprehensible. There is no credible plan to ever pay this back from the generation who spent it.


Len Penzo March 19, 2011 at 12:30 am

IMO, the best way to fix education is to allow private school vouchers and force the public education system to *compete* for students — and their survival — just like any private business has to do in the marketplace. May the best schools win. If the teachers’ unions continue to insist that it is impossible to fairly evaluate teachers performance, so be it. With vouchers the parents will do the evaluations through their pocketbooks.

My $0.02.

All the best,

Len Penzo dot Com


Darwin March 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm

What happened in DC lately? complete atrocity. The teachers were offered ability to make up to $140K or thereabouts if willing to forgo tenure rules and to be rated on results and the union wouldn’t even allow a vote. Teachers that would have gone for it weren’t even allowed a vote! That’s “representation”?


Bret @ Hope to Prosper March 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm

I agree with Len 100%.

When my kids started doing poorly in public school, I paid to send them to private school. But, I also paid taxes to fund public schools. If school vouchers were available, private school would be more affordable and pulic schools would improve to compete. Also, the state would save a lot of money to help close our budget deficit.


Darwin March 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm

I just watched “Waiting for Superman”. In 90 minutes, easy to see why the US public school system is completely doomed to fail (continue to fail actually). Teachers unions, administration. It’s not bad teachers, bad parents or dumb kids. It’s the unions flat-out.


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