Public sector unions generally, and the Wisconsin teachers’ union specifically, have lost the first battle in the emerging war over taxpayer funded salaries and benefits. Despite the unions’ misplaced yet fervent belief, the public was not swayed to their side when teachers abandoned their classrooms, shut down schools, behaved loutishly and used children as props in their anti-fiscal responsibility campaign.
To their credit, unions realized that blaming unemployed and underemployed taxpayers for questioning their gold-plated pension and health benefits, toward which teachers contribute close to nothing, wasn’t working. Maybe the moment of realization came when President Obama decided cramming gay marriage down America’s throat would be more popular than continuing to support the unions’ brazen defense of the indefensible.
The unions are now shifting strategies, and a couple of memes are starting to emerge.
1. Unions now claim this fight is not about the cost of benefits and salaries, but about a nebulous “ideology.” As in “Governor Scott Walker is trying to force his right-wing anti-middle class worker ideology on poor, progressive Wisconsin.” Left unsaid is the unions’ “we are entitled to bankrupt the state to preserve our unrealistic benefits, and we are willing to use violence to achieve that end” ideology, which belief is exactly what has caused states to totter on the edge of insolvency and default.
The unions’ new argument seems to be that questioning prevailing ideology is somehow beyond the pale. At least when the prevailing ideology is one with which the unions agree.
If we are going to have a discussion about ideology, then let’s have that discussion. At stake here is nothing less than the philosophical underpinnings of American government and its social contract.
One one side are the unions. The unions believe that it is the job of the government to confiscate and redistribute wealth to their members, regardless of the consequence to society at large. Sure, they hide their beliefs well, dressing it up in “it’s for the children” and “we’re champions of the working man” rhetoric. But in the end, that’s were unions stand. Pay up, shut up and damn the consequences.
On the other side are those who believe government employees are necessary, and should be compensated fairly. They further believe that as recipients of taxpayer monies, the unions have obligations as well. Primary among these obligations is not to bankrupt the state. The failure to meet this basic obligation is part of what contributed to Governor Walker’s election in Wisconsin.
Is ‘Puter’s claim that unions are bankrupting the state too strong? ‘Puter thinks not. State workers have received nearly unlimited taxpayer largesse for years. In return, state workers have no real obligations. Perhaps it is more apt to say state workers have no real consequences should they fail to meet their obligations. State workers cannot be fired, except for the most egregious behavior. State workers’ pay increases every year, regardless of individual or department performance. State workers have benefit packages that are extraordinary by private sector standards. State workers with seniority are fired last, regardless of merit. Those taspayers that fund state workers, for the most part, have no such similar insulation from the consequnces of their (in)actions. We can debate why this is the state of facts, but it is indisputable that it is the state of facts.**
Unions either mistake, or flagrantly misrepresent, the concerns of their opponents. Union oppponents do not begrudge public sector union workers their jobs. What they object to is the preferential treatment of state workers at the expense of taxpayers. They believe, correctly, that in this down economy, union insistence on unrealistic work rules, pay and benefits is nothing less than theft from the taxpayer. Union workers are saying to their neighbors, we know times are tough, but screw you, pay up, or we’ll confiscate your house and/or jail you.
Let ‘Puter state this plainly. In the end, public sector union contracts are fiananced through an involuntary transfer of money from the taxpayer to the union and its members, which involuntary transfer is made under threat of force. This description is not too strong. If ‘Puter objects to his local teachers’ union’s contract and benefits, he still must pay his taxes that fund the objectionable benefits. If ‘Puter does not pay his taxes, the school district sells his house. If ‘Puter refuses to leave his home after sale, the sheriff comes and removes ‘Puter at gunpoint.
Unions will claim that this is a gross simplification, an overstatement, an incitement, a lie, or some combination of all of the above. It is not. It is a statement of fact. One that every union member would do well to be reminded of.
Union members should ask themselves this question. Do you believe your benefits are fair to both you and to the taxpayer such that you would be willing to sell your neighbor’s home or put him in jail to fund them?
‘Puter believes that it is also the duty of the taxpayer to ask and to answer the reciprocal question. Do you believe your tax burden is such that you are willing to short a hard working union member his benefits to lower your payment a few dollars?
For too long, the unions have refused to consider their question, and we are left with a situation where the taxpayer responds in the affirmative to his question.
2. Public sector unions are conveniently ignoring the sharp distinction between private sector unions and public sector unions.
For a good example of this, see Ms. Randi Weingarten’s, president of the United Federation of Teachers, performance this morning on Morning Joe. Ms. Weingarten is attempting to lump all unions together, and for good reason. Public sector unions will not win this struggle without assitance from their private sector brethren. However, private sector unions are fundamentally different.
As ‘Puter has noted before, private sector unions cannot ask so much from their employers such that the employer becomes unprofitable. Private companies must attract investors and customers, investors and customers who have the ability to take their money elsewhere should the employer become unattractive for any reason. In the case of capital and customer flight, businesses go bankrupt. Private sector unions know this, and usually bargain accordingly. Notable exceptions include the United Auto Workers union who, with management assistance, set the conditions for General Motors and Chrysler to fail.
Public sector unions are under no such constraint. Public sector unions cut their deals, raise their benefits and then present the taxpayer with a fait accompli. Pay the taxes necessary to support our generous packages or lose your house. Taxpayers cannot take their capital elsewhere.
The essential distinction is that there is a market based check on private sector unions, while there is no such check on public sector unions. Public sector unions can hold the government and the taxpayers hostage with impunity. If the taxpayers refuse to meet public sector unions’ demands, those unions either slow down or shut down essential government functions. Then, the unions run commercials blaming the union-caused harm caused on evil conservative politicians or anti-public union groups.
“They want grandma to die cold and alone! They want your child to get a substandard education! They’re further impoverishing the poor! Who will staff your hospitals?!? Criminals will run rampant without more police! Houses and businesses will burn to the ground without more firefighters!”
It is blackmail, plain and simple.
Public sector unions are not the same as private sector unions. Do not permit the unions and their media enablers to spin you.
Thanks for bearing with ‘Puter through this long-winded, poorly drafted rant. ‘Puter is hopeful that America has finally awakened to the damage wrought by public sector unions. ‘Puter is further hopeful that we will be able to readjust the relationship between public sector workers and the taxpayer to be more fair.
Again, ‘Puter does not believe that public sector workers should be treated unfairly. ‘Puter does not believe that public scetor workers are unworthy of reasonable protections from unjust personal and political vendettas. ‘Puter does not believe that public sector workers should be subject to mismanagement and mistreatment at the had of incompetent or malevolent management.
‘Puter understands that change can be terrifying, particularly where it involves one’s job, particularly during a recession, and particularly as one approaches retirement. These fears are understandable and reasonable. However, public employee fear of change is not a rational basis to avoid addressing the problem before us.
‘Puter believes now is the time to reexamine the relationship between the taxpayers, their government and public sector unions. The rules we have right now are not working. We need new rules that are fair to all, even to the unions that have gamed the system for their members’ benefit all these years.
*’Puter uses “unions” in this post as shorthand for “public sector unions.” Where ‘Puter wishes to identify private sector unions, he will do so specifically.
** ‘Puter understands that some readers may hail from states that do not have exceedingly generous public employee benefit packages. Before ‘Puter gets too much hate mail from union supporters, please take a look at the retirement benefits a Tier 4 (the least generous tier) New York teacher gets:
a. Retire at 55 after 30 years of service.
b. Receive a guaranteed pension for life equal to 60% of the average of the teacher’s highest three years of pay.
c. For each year worked after 30 years of service, receive a 1.25% kicker up to a maximum multiplier of 70%.
d. No state income tax payable on pension benefits, a sweetener worth 6.85% per year.
e. Health care benefits equal to or better than current teachers, who can choose plans for which they pay anywhere from 0%-15% of the cost of the coverage. Retirement health coverage can, however, be changed in contract negotiations, but to the best of ‘Puter’s knowledge, this has never occurred.
f. Receive Social Security benefits.
g. Medicare and Medicaid eligible.
f. Receive payments from any voluntary, pre-tax contributions made to the teacher’s 403(b) plan over the cours of his career.
‘Puter figures, assuming the teacher retires making about $90,000 per year, and assuming no contributions to a 403(b), the teacher will receive about $79,000 per year in pension and social security benefits, factoring in the value of the tax exemption. And, at 55, they can change careers and work for at least another ten or so years while collecting their pension.