There Should Be No Public Sector Unions

March 4th, 2011

By Tom Carter

Wisconsin is attempting to address the problem of public sector unions and the economic burdens they’ve placed on state and local governments.  This state-level effort, which is being repeated in other states, draws attention to the fact that public sector unions are inappropriate at every level.

What Wisconsin is trying to do isn’t particularly radical, despite the overheated rhetoric from unions and their supporters.  The new law would eliminate collective bargaining for benefits and working hours but retain it for pay.  Unions would be required to re-certify each year, and workers would not be forced to join unions.  Employees would have to contribute a bit more to their retirement plans and health coverage.  Police, firefighters, and others involved in public safety work would be exempt from the changes.

Even if the law is passed and signed, Wisconsin public sectors unions would be stronger than they are in some states because they would still have collective bargaining power for pay, with increases beyond the cost of living requiring approval in a referendum.  In addition to some states not allowing collective bargaining at all for public sector unions, federal civilian workers generally do not have collective bargaining rights.

As it stands today, the Wisconsin Assembly has passed the bill.  Senate Democrats have left the state and refuse to return, preferring to avoid the process of democracy by taking their ball and running away like little kids.  Governor Scott Walker has threatened significant layoffs today if at least one Democratic senator doesn’t return to permit a vote in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the media and politicians on both sides continue to distort the facts.  Most of the media has ignored or downplayed the vitriolic, hate-filled nature of pro-union demonstrations, and conservative supporters of the law continue to misconstrue the facts of worker compensation in Wisconsin.  Reading statistics they way they want to, they claim that public sector workers are hugely better compensated that private sector workers.  That may be true at the most gross level, considering only total numbers.  When looked at in a more rational sense, considering education levels, the picture is much different.

The issue is much bigger than Wisconsin trying to cope with a budget crisis or what level of bargaining rights public sector unions should have.  The simple truth is that public sector unions shouldn’t exist.  As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, indicating essentially the same truth,

“The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, “I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place” in the public sector. “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”

Private sector unions represent workers in bargaining with the owners and managers of businesses on how to distribute profits.  They were essential in the earlier years of the union movement, but two things happened to weaken their influence.  First, union force abetted by acquiescent management crippled some industries, the UAW and the auto industry being perhaps the best examples.  Second, laws and regulations came into being to protect workers, and businesses reacted to the threat of unionization by creating conditions for their workers that made unions unnecessary.  The result is that now less than seven percent of private sector workers are in unions.

Public sector unions, on the other hand, represent workers in bargaining with public sector managers and politicians.  They’re bargaining for the people’s tax dollars with officials who have nothing to lose and, in many cases, much to gain by giving them most of what they want.  In effect, they launder money as it passes from taxpayers to government to workers to unions to political contributions, mostly to Democrats.  That’s why over 36 percent of public sector employees are still unionized — at great expense to taxpayers.

I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-union.  I grew up in a union family.  My father, a pipefitter, was a lifelong union member, and in those earlier days I saw innumerable cases in which the union protected him and his fellow workers and their families.

For a brief period at the end of my high school years and before I joined the Army, I was a card-carrying member of the same union, working with my father on big-inch cross-country pipeline construction.  One day not long after I joined the union we were laying pipe somewhere out in the wilds of Minnesota, and the union steward went around telling everyone to stop working.  I asked my father what was going on and was told, basically, to sit down and shut up.  I didn’t argue, seeing as how I was about to pass out from back-breaking labor in the incredible heat.

As we all sat around, I found out that the shut-down was because of me.  Once I was a union member, my pay was supposed to go up slightly — as I remember, from $1.10 per hour to $1.25, or something like that.  As the youngest and greenest of the lot, I was embarrassed and feeling very guilty about it until I was assured by other workers that protecting one person’s rights was the same as protecting everyone’s.  It turned out to be just an administrative mistake — no foul intended — and we were back at work in a couple of hours.  I’ve never forgotten this incident from so long ago; it forever leavened any sense of outrage I might feel at examples of union excess.

But I have no sympathy for public sector unions.  Those who work for the public, whatever their jobs, are protected by numerous laws and regulations.  Their compensation can be (and is supposed to be) based on comparable private sector jobs.  They should not be able to strike, which is a refusal to provide the public the work for which they are employed.

Public employees who feel that they must be union members have an alternative — get a job in the private sector.  Of course, once they do that they’ll most likely find that they don’t need to be union members.

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2 Responses to “There Should Be No Public Sector Unions”

  1. larry ennis |

    Bravo, a perfect essay on the place of unions in our nations labor force. Like you, I’m not anti-union having been a member of the UAW and the IBEW. Both are private sector unions. Public sector unions are easily corrupted by organized crime and crooked politicians.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Well, I wouldn’t be too quick to exclude private sector unions from charges of corruption and mob connections. The best example is probably the Teamsters (IBT). In many unions, leaders exist mainly to serve themselves, not their members. Just too much money available in dues income, retirement funds, etc.

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