Public-worker Unions Under Fire

Count me – the son of a union family – among those who would support some version here of Wisconsin’s Act 10, which curbs the clout of public worker unions.

I know that’s anathema to HGEA, UPW, UHPA and HSTA leaders and rank-and-file, and probably won’t happen while we have a lopsidedly Democratic Legislature.

But it’s worth considering.

Perhaps we should start by publicizing the key paragraph in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential letter in 1937 to the Federation of Federal Employees:

“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service … The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”

Roosevelt was a big supporter of unions and collective bargaining in private industry – especially factories. But not strikes or the right to demand certain pay scales for government workers.

There’s logic in that. Private industry is forprofit. An owner might want to keep all that profit for himself. Government is nonprofit and might require its revenue for some higher, all-people’s needs than just the government workers’ pay demands.

That brings us back to Wisconsin’s new Act 10. It bars public-worker unions from bargaining on pensions, health coverage, sick leave and vacations. Any wage increases they want cannot exceed inflation.

There were plenty of squawks when Gov. Scott Walker proposed and got that from the Wisconsin Legislature, but he and the lawmakers are still in office. Meanwhile, Wisconsin union members are quickly dropping out. Why pay dues if the union can’t do very much for you?

One thing an Act 10 definitely accomplishes is to give political leaders much more control over their budgets. In Hawaii, the state bargains for itself and the counties, and thus encumbers the budgets of both if it either agrees to union demands or is forced to by binding arbitration. Other needs may go unfunded.

We have a two-tier system. Some unions bargain and can strike. Others have their demands heard in a binding arbitration session. The arbitrators generally only determine if the state/counties have the money – not whether they may have competing needs for it.

Public-sector unions like that arbitration system. It’s mainly gone their way. Gov. Ben Cayetano tried to get lawmakers to move back to the settle-or-strike system. He failed.

President Roosevelt abhorred government worker strikes, and so do I and many of you. A teacher or refuse-worker strike is a strike against children and good health practices.

If Wisconsin’s Act 10 survives, that may embolden other states.

As one respected professor of labor relations has said: “Fairly or unfairly, public-sector unions are increasingly being seen by the people as part of the (state budget) problem.”