Saturday, March 13, 2010

Public service unions

My father was in a union most of his working life (before coming to this country, he was in a guild). I watched as he dealt with corruption and out and out criminal behavior. Shortly after he retired, the local union was disbanded by the national for criminal behavior. He even spent time as a shop steward. The union had been 'captured' by the company. Union workers moving up the ladder, eventually became supervisors that were no longer part of the union, but every bit still involved. I bring this up because in a union town like Chicago, where I grew up, there was a common theme - unions had to protect the workers. I often wondered from who? Unions regularly used employer policies to keep members in line, were often compromised by their own corruption and generally practiced a crude form of trickle down economics - what was good for the union bosses would eventually benefit the membership.

My father was eventually removed as steward because he was causing too many disruptions between the union and the company over worker rights/discipline (often as arbitrary by the company as by the union itself).

I get why unions formed, but virtually every one of those reasons do not apply to public service unions. But conceptually, there is one issue that keeps coming back to me:
One 'generation' binding another.

Let me explain. Early in our country's life, there was a debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. At the root was a proclamation made by the Parliament to the king (about a century earlier) that took the form of an oath binding the Englishmen AND THEIR OFFSPRING FOREVER to the King. Burke found no problem with such a proclamation and Paine found it to be absurd. How could a man bind his unborn great grandson to a course of action long after his death. What was freedom if your parents could bind you into agrements before your birth? What was liberty if your were required to act in ways you had no choice in?

Bring it forward. A local municipality enters into a collective bargaining agreement with a union requiring pay raises over a five year period. Those pay raises require future administrations to raise taxes on citizens. What if the local citizens require specific votes before taxes can be raised. If legal counsel states the contracts are binding and the taxes have to be raised, have not the citizen's liberty, freedom, been compromised by the union contract?

Maybe I am too simple minded. I can not see any reason for a public servant to have a union. And I can see lots of reasons why such a union can be harmful to the citizens they are supposed to be serving. Theoretically, public servants are providing some common good. A strike (the only means of a union to force their demands on a 'company') denies citizens a public good. Under what agreement between the citizens and their government can the government deny a public good? Well, a union contract could do that. Further, let us say that the citizens are tired of their local representatives and for whatever reason (say contract negotiations) they vote everyone out and replace them. Is it consistent with freedom that the new administration is bound by the actions of their predecessors such that nothing can be done?

Union members will be quick to remind me that renegotiation can occur - but seldom (ever?) have contract terms been rolled back. Future delays yes, give backs, not so much.

I have argued that employment with the federal government (for non-elected servants) be limited to 10 years with no retirement benefits. Two exceptions: military and judiciary(which includes law enforcement). At more local levels, I see no reason to change that position. Obviously there is no military at the municipal level but we can have fire departments and judiciary(including law enforcement). The question then becomes, what of teachers? I can find no compelling reason to include teachers in the allowance. Make your best shot, but teacher unions are among the worst offenders in my opinion.

Public service unions around the country are telling governments to cut common good services, or raise taxes on citizens but to leave their contracts alone. I find nothing in that position that is freedom or liberty asserting. No, your contracts can not be an infringement on my rights and demanding MY taxes be raised to pay you IS an infringement.

Either require all public service employee contracts be renegotiated after each election or just get rid of the union - which is my preference. There is no reason for citizens to be bound by the actions of their parents and there is no reason to have career civil servants (except as noted above).

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