I’m sure much of this has been said, but I wrote this for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student newspaper. Thanks for reading!
Original Publication: Daily Cardinal, University of Wisconsin’s Student Newspaper
Walking down the streets of Tianjin, China, last summer, I couldn’t help but notice the working conditions of a construction crew wrapping up its shift. Besides the fact that the crew lacked what we would consider proper safety equipment, the workers’ tattered clothing and soot-covered faces showed they had been working all day through the brutal 90-degree heat.
Around the turn of the 19th century, American workers faced similar working conditions, low pay and a system that overlooked both. America needed an organized labor movement to ensure workers were fairly treated and reasonably compensated.
Throughout the next century the American worker saw their working conditions and pay improve drastically thanks to organized labor. As working conditions improved, the percentage of unionized workers declined. Today, less than 10 percent of American workers in the private sector are unionized. During the recession, as private sector union employees saw their pay and benefits cut, another form of union has seen its pay and benefits steadily increase nationwide—public sector unions.
The public sector has become a powerful force in our government. Bob Chanin of the National Educators Association gave his thoughts on exactly why organized labor has been such effective at advocating for public service employees to the NEA representative assembly: “Despite what some of us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children, and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe we are the unions that can most effectively represent them.”
The 9,000 NEA union bosses present rose to their feet and gave Chanin a standing ovation. Certainly most teachers and public service employees don’t hold the same sentiment as their leadership, such as those present in the assembly. The problem is that in Wisconsin right now, to be a public service employee you are forced to join a union. The union in turn forces those members to pay dues, which is then given to grease Democratic lawmakers into increasing benefits and wages, no matter how bad the economy gets.
In the private sector, unions have to work with employers. Otherwise, if they demand too much the company will go out of business. In the public sector this is not the case. As long as lawmakers continue to be heavily lobbied by public sector union bosses, those lawmakers can simply reach into the pockets of taxpayers whether the government can afford it or not.
This is the cycle Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill addresses. Public sector unions would be allowed to exist and collectively bargain for wage increases, so long as a majority of the members of that union want to participate. Some think this would make it essentially impossible for public sector unions to exist, as most likely a majority of those employees would not vote to form the union. While no doubt some unions would continue to exist, the number of unionized public sector employees would drop precipitously.
Some would argue this is unfair, because those who collectively bargain still benefit those who choose not to. My question is, if all public sector unions really care about is benefiting the workers they represent, why is this such a bad thing?
I think the answer lies partially with what Chanin said to the NEA assembly. Public sector unions have power. This bill undermines that power by reducing the amount of dues that are taken from public employees, which then reduces the hundreds of millions of dollars public sector unions spend on lobbying Democratic lawmakers. In the past 20 years the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees alone has given more to Democrats than Goldman Sachs and Lehman brothers have given to both parties combined. Unions are consistently among the largest donors to political campaigns, and they give almost exclusively to Democrats.
Opponents argue this bill limits their civil and constitutional rights. Comparisons between Walker and Middle East dictators are not uncommon. They say that since many public sector employees would no longer be represented by a union, their voices couldn’t be heard in government. Our democracy, however, was created such that their voice indeed can be heard.
The first Tuesday of every November in this country we have elections at the federal, state and local levels. While indeed the power of unions to give millions of dollars to the Democratic party would be limited, the power of the individual would be intact. A teacher, or any other public service employee for that matter, can vote for the candidate or candidates who best represent their interests. They can even give money to and actively campaign for those candidates. Furthermore, if Wisconsinites feel Walker and the Republican-controlled House and Senate’s budget repair bill goes too far, they can vote all of them out of office the next election cycle.
This is a key difference between unions in the public sector and those in the private. In the private sector, employees can’t necessarily vote for people who represent their interests at the top. In the public sector, they can.
Last November Wisconsin chose limited government, a more responsible fiscal policy and a governor who promised to limit the power of public sector unions. While certainly public sector unions alone are not to blame for our current budget situation, they do play a vital role in reducing the looming $3.6 billion deficit. Rather than calling each other names, lets come together to figure out what needs to be done to fix our great state.
Matt Payne is a junior majoring in Chinese and economics. We welcome all feedback. Please send responses to [email protected]
Here is a video of Mr. Chanin’s statements I reference in the article.