Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 1, 2011

Union busting an unjustified extreme

I irk people on both ends of the political spectrum with my position on public employee unions. It’s an issue that’s currently front and center thanks to the standoff in Wisconsin, but it’s relevant across the nation, including California and South County.

I irk those on the left when I note that public employees are frequently overpaid compared to the private sector, that their health care and pension benefits are far more generous than private-sector benefits, and that it’s often much too difficult to fire badly performing public-sector workers.

Public-sector compensation and employment rules ought to be comparable to the private sector; after all, the private sector funds all public sector spending. A look just at pensions (I don’t have space to address wages, health-care benefits and work rules) shows that’s not the case:

• The Los Angeles Times reported that “about 90% of state and local workers in the U.S. have pensions, compared with about 20% of private-sector workers.” Private-sector workers, if they have a retirement plan at all, usually have a 401k plan with a modest employer match.

• After the 2008 market crash, many companies stopped matching employees’ 401k contributions. Pollyannas who say that we ought to close the pension gap by improving private-sector pensions rather than reducing public-sector pensions ignore — or are ignorant of — the world-is-flat competitive reality of private-sector employment.

• Public-sector workers have a pension safety net — taxpayers — that private-sector workers do not have. If public-sector workers’ retirement plans don’t reap expected investment returns, taxpayers must make them whole. Meanwhile, 401k plans, which place all the risk on the employee, lost 30 percent of their value since the 2008 market crash, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• The Los Angeles Times noted a Little Hoover Commission pension study conclusion: “Many state and local government employees have been promised pensions that the public couldn’t have afforded even had there been no crash.”

Unions and their advocates should understand that if compensation, benefits and work rules hadn’t gotten so far out of line, there’d be much less public support for extreme measures like ending collective bargaining. Alaska state Senator Bert Stedman (R) was exactly right when he said in 2005, “When the private sector has to pay for the public-sector benefit packages they can’t get themselves, you’re going to have a lot of political and social unrest.” Cue the Tea Party and Wisconsin protests.

I irk those on the right when I oppose busting public employee unions, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to do. Clearly, public-sector workers’ compensation, benefits, and work rules must be brought in line with the private sector. But that doesn’t justify stripping public-sector workers of their collective bargaining rights.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision removed most restrictions on corporate election spending. Given that, it’s more important than ever to have a counterbalance to that spending, and unions are the natural organizations for that role. Of course, that’s why ideologues on the far right and their corporate sponsors are so eager to bust unions.

Despite Walker’s and others’ claims to the contrary, ending collective bargaining will not balance budgets. Reducing public-sector workers’ compensation and pensions, increasing their share of their health-care benefits costs, and correcting work rules that restrict firing of bad workers will improve the bottom line and can be done within collective bargaining systems. In contrast, busting unions is an ideologically motivated political strategy that will swing the pendulum dangerously too far in the opposite direction.

Right-wingers who didn’t like my column correcting myths about former President Ronald Reagan won’t like this: Reagan was the only US president who belonged to a union; he even served as president of a union. As US president, Reagan called the right to belong to a union “one of the most elemental human rights.”

We have unreasonable contracts with public employee unions because we have politicians with insufficient motivation to negotiate hard with public employee unions for reasonable contracts. How do we provide our politicians with that motivation? By being involved voters who pay attention to what politicians are doing, by communicating with them, and by voting out those who, regardless of their political persuasion, fail to make their constituents’ best interests their top priority.

That applies to Republicans like Walker who want to bust unions under the false cover of “balancing the budget,” and to Democrats who endorse unreasonable contracts under the false cover of “standing with workers.”

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