If your state is staring down a fiscal crisis, it’s likely due to its inability to deliver on its commitments to public sector employees. This is certainly the case in my state. Tonight I sat and listened to Paul Begala sourly claim on CNN that “it’s not the unions that are bankrupting this country” and that’s a (at least partly) true statement – but they are bankrupting the states. Watch this video by Daniel DiSalvo for a quick primer on why public unions are uniquely powerful and have proved uniquely damaging:
That covers the symbiotic relationship that allows public unions to pile up benefits that are not grounded in economic reality. What’s more, the public, politicians and the media are more likely to respond to organized, loud, sustained voices when it comes time to make the case for funding (I’m being pretty diplomatic here). This describes public unions exactly.
But nobody hears from the other side, the side that would benefit from those tax dollars being freed up for use elsewhere, (or, god forbid, being returned to the taxpayer) because the representatives of that side are varied and unaffiliated with one another. Sometimes the representatives of that cost don’t even exist yet (think of the business that isn’t started because tax rates are raised to offset an increase in public sector employment benefits). It’s very hard to capture the point of view of “the rest of us” in a soundbite when we can’t all climb in a bus with matching t-shirts and signs.
Finally, these are jobs that we’ve determined to be critical public services and thus have turned them over to the state – police, fire, sanitation, education – yet because they are unionized, we allow them to hold communities hostage because we’ve preemptively removed their competition. They have nothing to lose. We, the rest of us, lose a lot. That’s why, up until the 1950s, nobody – not FDR, not the AFL-CIO – thought that this was a good idea. More from DiSalvo:
In the private sector, the wage demands of union workers cannot exceed a certain threshold: If they do, they can render their employers uncompetitive, threatening workers’ long-term job security. In the public sector, though, government is the monopoly provider of many services, eliminating any market pressures that might keep unions’ demands in check. Moreover, unlike in the private sector, contract negotiations in the public sector are usually not highly adversarial; most government-agency mangers have little personal stake in such negotiations. Unlike executives accountable to shareholders and corporate boards, government managers generally get paid the same — and have the same likelihood of keeping their jobs — regardless of whether their operations are run efficiently. They therefore rarely play hardball with unions like business owners and managers do; there is little history of “union busting” in government.
So that’s why it’s been so important that somebody – anybody – make an attempt to do some of that union busting in government. Otherwise, state pension plans are going under. It’s that simple. It’s basic math. States don’t get to print money like the federal government does.
I don’t hate public employees like teachers. My wife is a teacher. Hell, it’s even hard to get really mad at the public sector unions, because they’re guilty of nothing except being really good at what they were asked to do – get the best possible deal for their members. No, the people deserving of scorn are the politicians of the past who – if they had even a basic grasp of elementary arithmetic – could see that these promises were not sustainable, but chose to do what was politically expedient for them. And what is politically expedient is always giving stuff to the organized loud people. You shouldn’t be upset at the unions for being shrill and wanting to keep what they’ve got – that’s just human nature. Be upset at the politicians of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s for being spineless. Public sector pension and benefit plans became so entrenched that it was seen as political suicide to take it on. But Scott Walker showed that it can be done. And, since he won the recall by a larger margin than the 2010 election, apparently the residents of Wisconsin think what he’s doing is working. Check out this piece from Reason and this resulting graph:
This is a state that is realizing it’s possible to make some fiscally responsible decisions without reverting to the service-less dystopia the unions promised was awaiting us should their collective bargaining rights be taken away. Still don’t believe me? One third of union households voted to keep him in office. The government-public union arrangement has stayed well beyond its expiration date, but Wisconsin just showed the country that there’s a way to move forward. Even if it took a temper tantrum of hilarious proportions.