Will Wisconsin governor snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

By Jayson Jacoby March 04, 2011 11:58 am

Public employee unions are much in the news these days, and quite a lot of the people who have something to say about unions say it with palpable passion.

I respect people who express themselves with conviction. By contrast, an opinion delivered dispassionately can be as unsatisfying as a meal of bland, ungarnished food. Boiled potatoes, for instance.

 

But passion, like other powerful emotions, tends to give the heart temporary precedence over the brain.

Taken to an extreme, this condition can prompt a person to make a pronouncement that at first echoes sweetly in the ear, but at the cost of a thudding headache the next morning.

Most often these statements, when reconsidered at a more sober moment, seem even to the speaker exaggerated and simplistic.

To wit: Union workers are leeches, deployed by the socialist cabal to suck the vestiges of freedom (and taxes) from America’s veins.

Except, that is, when unions are defending the middle class against the rapacious rich who would subject us all to serfdom.

And 80-hour weeks besides.

I wish I could be so definite and so confident in my disdain for, or defense of, public sector unions.

That would be simpler, certainly, like rooting for a football team.

Yet I can’t persuade myself that millions of teachers, cops, firefighters and assorted bureaucrats with long, convoluted job titles can be as collectively nasty, or as saintly, as has been asserted.

From what I know of public employees I’d judge that they’re pretty ordinary, as a rule, and not different in any meaningful way from the majority who toil in the private sector.

But because government workers draw their pay and fringe benefits from taxes and fees, the millions who foot the bill seem to feel they ought to have a say in the matter.

Which is reasonable enough.

It’s not unreasonable, anyway, for taxpayers to demand that the share of their earnings that funnels into public coffers be spent with a modicum of care.

There’s a vast amount of money at stake, too, since personnel costs account for more than half the expense in most government agencies, and close to three-quarters in many cases.

What troubles me is that the people who spend those dollars, by way of negotiating labor contracts with public sector unions, in the main lack that combination of ruthlessness and greed that we associate with the management side of the bargaining table.

School superintendents and city managers, for instance, aren’t likely to play hardball with anything like the same verve as a corporate vice president.

I don’t mean to impugn the motives or abilities of superintendents or city managers — or indeed of any public official who negotiates with unions.

It’s just that bargaining with the public’s money, who can do little but complain when you foul things up (and might not notice when you do), is inherently a different thing than playing with the personal investments of tycoons, who know their way around a ledger and who can fire you with a phone call.

It’s this relationship between management and union in the public arena — not always cozy, exactly, but not instinctively antagonistic, either — that is for me the most disconcerting aspect of government labor unions.

This is, I fear, the kind of genial atmosphere that spawns such multi-generational debacles as Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

The Legislature has over the past 15 years or so cleansed PERS of its most egregious, and costly, entitlements, notably the guaranteed return on retirees’ accounts.

(The people who created PERS apparently missed economics class the day bear markets were explained.)

Yet PERS’ expensive legacy lingers in the budgets of every state and local government agency in Oregon — Baker City’s share of the bill, for instance, is projected to rise by about $70,000 in the next fiscal year.

This kind of recklessness is hardly unique to Oregon, specifically, or even to government in general.

The American carmakers, I recall, were perhaps a tad too generous with the United Auto Workers a while back.

The difference, it seems to me, lies in the level of polarization that marks public labor disputes such as the current one pitting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker against state workers there.

Walker’s critics brand him the puppet of billionaires whose ultimate goal is to eviscerate organized labor, both public and private.

A gullible observer might conclude that, were it not for public unions, kids would still be laboring every day in dark, dank factories, earning pennies until they have an arm yanked off by a conveyor belt.

Unions did play a major role in relegating such Dickensian scenes to history, of course.

But the heroes were private sector unions, and their most important victories predate World War II.

The notion that a proposal such as Walker’s — to require public employees to pay a modestly larger share of their health insurance premiums and retirement account contributions — signals the impending dissolution of the American middle class is so ludicrous that it’s insulting.

Walker is just trying to balance a budget, which is sort of an important part of his job.

(He’s also trying to eliminate unions’ right to collectively bargain for their benefits, limiting negotiations to wages only, but I don’t see how that adds any credibility to the outlandish assertions about the governor’s real motivation.)

Yet the blathering from some of the anti-union crowd seems to me equally silly.

I don’t believe public workers are unusually greedy or lazy.

And they’re a goodly distance from being socialists.

In fact, public unions epitomize capitalism. Their ultimate goal, after all, is to secure for the largest number of their members the most lucrative deal possible.

Which sounds like something Gordon Gekko might wax rhapsodic about during a shareholder meeting.

Were they ever to ask my advice — and I’m not expecting the call — I would ask of public unions only that they be more willing to share financial sacrifices equally among all their members.

That they act a little less capitalistic, if you will.

Too often, it seems to me, when confronted by a state or city or school district that has less money to spend than in the past, unions are willing to let a minority of their members lose their jobs rather than accept cuts in pay and benefits that affect everyone but minimize the layoffs.

This comes off as callous — especially from the perspective of the unfortunates who get a pink slip out of the deal.

Then, too, elected officials such as Gov. Walker ought to remember that compromise is not the same as capitulation.

Walker’s brinkmanship worked — the unions in Wisconsin said early on that they would pay a larger share of their retirement and insurance.

That helps to resolve his state’s most pressing fiscal crisis. Walker should relish his victory and tally up the millions of dollars saved.

Yet the protests in Madison continue because the governor, even after extracting meaningful concessions from the unions, wants to turn a solid win into an overwhelming rout by curtailing the unions’ bargaining authority, as well.

Walker’s aggressiveness warms the cockles of some conservatives’ hearts, of course.

But it’s a risky maneuver.

Walker has inflamed and invigorated the unions and their defenders, which any strategist will tell you is apt to be counterproductive.

The governor’s intransigence could well make future deals harder to make, not easier.

It’s a Pyrrhic victory indeed if, in trying to portray public employees as selfish and unreasonable, you end up looking like a bully.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.