Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are Unions The Right Wing Bogeymen?

In Steven Greenhouse’s article in today’s New York Times, he addresses the passage of Governor Walker’s budget bill in Wisconsin eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers in terms of Indiana, where the Governor there, Mitch Daniels, eliminated collective bargaining 6 years ago.

This is instructive not only for Wisconsin’s future, but for the future of unions throughout America, because the politically driven agenda is that of the Tea Party. Those politicians are basically oxymorons; they get elected to government and all the perks it bestows in order to eliminate it. It argues for deficit reduction except when it comes to tax cuts. No pay as you go, just pay for play (see: Gov. Walker “prank” call).

Governor Daniels’ executive order has had far reaching consequences in Indiana. Some years state workers received no raises; seniority preferences were weakened (in other words, if you earned more money as a result of working more years and accruing more experience, that might not be taken into account; in fact that might work against you); and the freedom for the government to privatize and outsource state operations.

This works out well in theory for the state in terms of balancing the budget, which, as opposed to the federal budget, has a mandate to balance its budget yearly. We can get into a long shouting match as to whether privatizing state programs such as prisons saves money. But for the state workers in Indiana, things haven’t been so great:

[T]he end of collective bargaining also meant a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010 and higher health insurance payments.

Several state employees said they now paid $5,200 a year in premiums, $3,400 more than when Mr. Daniels took office, although there are cheaper plans available.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Daniels adopted a merit pay system, with some employees receiving no raises and those deemed to be top performers getting up to 10%,

You might well ask yourself, what’s wrong with “merit”? Well, in many cases the idea of “merit” is arbitrarily applied. In the case of Indiana, state workers say that more expensive workers were considered less meritorious.

Do we really want to go back to Dickens’ 19th century conditions, where management had all the power and labor had basically no protection except their word? Walker, Daniels and the others say that unions tie their hands, even though the Wisconsin state workers yielded on every cost sacrifice they were asked to make. Walker had no interest in balancing the budget. His interest was in destroying the unions.

Returning to Greenhouse’s article:

Union officials say that collective bargaining provides workers with important protections against retaliation, age discrimination and management decisions that sometimes change with the political winds.

“Layoffs may not be based on merit or effectiveness, but on anything management wants it to be,” said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents 98,000 public school employees.

Ms. Bell said that experienced, high-salary* teachers would have targets on their heads and that class sizes would grow bigger without union prodding. (*”High-salary” is a relative term.)

Sometimes I think that people stereotype the persons who educate their children as working short hours with three months off every summer. This kind of terminology is useful in ramming through a political agenda but is damaging to children, teachers and parents alike, and just is not true. Teachers spend time in the classroom, they spend hours preparing lesson plans, hours correcting homework, time spent with individuals as well as the class as a whole, and often have to compensate for major gaps because of instability in their students’ homes, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Some schools can pick and choose their students, but public schools must take all comers. They cannot game the system.

Blaming the public unions for wasting the taxpayers’ money is misdirection. It is really a power grab on the part of the politicians.

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