Public Employee Unions: Time For Taxpayer Blowback

Life for the poor and the working class was probably never as miserable as during the western world’s Industrial Revolution. That great period of history, which turned agrarian societies into mechanized urban centers, also spawned an oppressive poverty. Unskilled workers labored long hours under dangerous conditions with little job security. Housing was horrifying. Disease thrived in the overcrowded, polluted nightmare of daily subsistence. Workers were plentiful making them also dispensable. Women and children were a large part of the workforce because they were cheaper and easier to abuse. For example, by the 1860s, twenty percent of Britain’s laborers were under the age of 15 years. It pretty much sucked being them.

The rise of government reforms and trade unions changed life dramatically for those on the bottom rung of mechanized labor. On our soil, trades had existed since pre-colonial days. But, it was the Industrial Revolution’s creation of the factory-worker environment that gave unions their noblest purpose. And, they did do a great job for their people, at least for a while. Through rough and tumble negotiations, they prevailed upon employers to grant job security where none existed. They secured a livable wage, safe working conditions and post-employment benefits. They’ve also been on the decline for the past fifty years, victims of their own excess and the death grip it has on business survival.

Unless, of course, the union is a public employee union. Those groups thrive precisely because of their excess, which is why they shouldn’t exist at all. They are a pretender in the history of unionized labor; the answer to the IQ test question, “which object is unlike all the others?” Show me a picture of the squalor that a public union cleaned up and I’ll show you a photo-shopped image. And yet, they grow stronger. How strong? Today, too many of our states are wandering in a financial wilderness because of massive unfunded pension liabilities owed to members of powerful public unions.

States got in that mess because public employee unions aren’t unions. They’re very influential lobbies. You-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours powerhouses. When a public employee union sits down to talk turkey with state representatives, a miracle of physics occurs. The table has only one side, and everyone is seated along it. In the private sector, union-management negotiation worked because opposing self-interests pursued a joint goal that benefitted everyone. The union wanted as much as it could get for its people. Managers wanted to keep as much as they could for their business. Both sides desired the competitive success of the company that employed them.

In the public sector, the self-interests of those at the table are coincident rather than opposing. Public employee unions are some of the biggest contributors to political campaigns. When they sit down to talk about wages and benefits, they’re too often talking to the candidates their money elected. In exchange for continued campaign largesse, these representatives of the people give the unions what they want to the point of bankrupting state coffers. The only party left out of this party are the citizens whose interests both sides are supposed to serve.

There’s a lot more at stake in Wisconsin these days than a $3.6 billion shortfall and some collective bargaining rights. Like the governments in the Middle East, public unions across the Country recognize the threat to their existence if even one governor prevails against them. Obama’s “assault on unions” flimflam underscores their mass angst. It’s the fear that their power politics will finally be undone by a focused spotlight on its unbridled greed.

It’s also the best chance in years to unburden ourselves of the bank-breaking greed fest that unions and state reps have wallowed in for decades. Time for some serious taxpayer blowback.

See you in the mirror.