Public employee unions…holding the public hostage

The fight between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker  who is using that state’s budget crisis to try and limit the right of public employees to organize and collectively bargain raises lots of important issues.

Unions have always been a thorn in the side of Republicans.

Over the last few decades the power of unions representing workers in the private sector has been pretty well destroyed by a combination of moving factory work outside the country and union-busting efforts such as occurred in Arizona when the mining industry flattened their unions.

Note that Arizona is a “right to work” state meaning one does not have to belong to a union.

The main growth in the union movement has been in the public sector.

I can speak from first hand experience about public employee unions.

My first encounter was with police and fire employee unions at the city of Tucson where the unions actually went on strike leaving the city government seriously thinking about calling in the National Guard to protect the safety of Tucson residents. The city did not cave in to the unions.

The second encounter involved the Teamsters who represented Tucson’s bus drivers. The bus system was being run by a private contract manager, and the unions wanted to deal directly with the city government. The city refused triggering a bus strike. The Teamsters tried this same scheme last year against Tucson. Meanwhile thousands of people could not get to work who depended on the bus system.

Whether or not public employees have the right to collectively bargain, I do not believe they should have the right to strike.

We can live without the products produced in the private sector when there is a labor dispute between workers and company owners. But we can’t function without police and fire protection. Strikes by public employees which threaten the very health, safety and welfare of the public turn the citizens of a community into hostages.

My third encounter with a public employee union was with a union that had organized my public works department employees….water and sewer workers, garbage men and street construction and maintenance folks.

Some very interesting issues in the conflict between government management and the employees.

First, it seems to always be the goal of a public employee union to get an automatic dues checkoff so union dues are deducted from employee pay checks to paid to the union. Unions don’t like the idea of having their members send them a dues check every month. I don’t think it is the government’s job to collect dues for unions.

Second, in the typical union organizing campaign, to succeed they have to create a conflict so they can justify why they should represent the workers. Typically the union organizer is a dissatisfied worker who sees the union as a way to get even. I don’t think the process of organizing a union should be allowed during working hours on government property.

Third, unions want everyone in the work force to have to belong to the union…called a “closed shop”. That is not allowed in Arizona. The argument from the union side is that since the workers benefit from their collective bargaining effort, all workers must belong to the union and pay dues, or not be allowed the job. Wisconsin might consider putting a “right to work” law on its ballot to see if every worker would be forced to belong to a union to hold a job.

Fourth, during contract negotiations there is a lot of push from union reps attempting to substitute their judgment for management’s. For example, there is a lot of overtime work in a public works or police department or a fire department. I had to deal with a union demand that overtime work be assigned strictly on a seniority basis…not on the basis of which worker had the skills necessary for the work at hand. It comes down to who is responsible for the services provided to the public….the union or government managers. Under no circumstances can a union tell a government how to provide the public services that must be provided.

When you look at all the different governmental functions whose workers are unionized … teachers…fire fighters, police, public works… you begin to see the problems of conflict between government managers and the workers.

Who is running Tucson Unified School District? The school board or the union?

A lot of the budget fight between public employee unions and state and local governments centers on pay and benefit packages.

From my perspective most government workers (except federal) are underpaid for the value of the services they provide…especially police, fire, nurses and teachers.

The problem for government is that to increase pay means increasing taxes…something at least in this Tea Party era is not possible.

Unions use their political clout to influence elections…typically trying to get “their” people elected to city councils and school boards. That does not change the basic revenue problem.  It would be very helpful if all the political effort expended by unions on electing their buddies to office would be spent convincing our taxpayers that their workers should get paid more.

The pension and benefit packages unions have gotten from government are a serious problem. Local and state budgets are not sustainable these days and the benefit packages are pushing government towards bankruptcy.

How did all these generous benefit packages get put into place in the frst instance….unions were successful in getting their buddies elected so the deals could be made.

A related problem is the pension and benefit packages in the private sector are meager by comparison to what public employees have. Maybe the answer is for the private sector to provide more benefits and better pensions….but the tide has going gone out on that one. Like it or not the generous benefit and pension packages for public employees only fuels jealousy from private sector employees which works against union goals.

I think Walker is making a big mistake by trying to deprive Wisconin’s public employees their right to organize and collectively bargain based on his deficit problem.

But that does not mean the public employee union sector are the good guys here.

Let them organize. But no mandatory dues checkoff. No right to strike.  No closed shop deals. No trying to jeopardize public safety by intruding into management responsibilities.

About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
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