Thursday, August 25, 2005

Live Like Slaves -- Part III (Public Employees Threaten Democracy)

I know I shouldn't let the Wall St. Journal get to me. They just write these stupid articles to make me mad.

This article hearkens back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when men were men and public employees were public servants in the truest sense of the word. Today's contribution to turning-back-the-clock comes courtesy of Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution, who, writing in today's Wall St. Journal, portrays evil public employee unions as powerful, anti-democratic, opposed to the public interest, and just plain bad for America.

Public Employees are Too Powerful:
No other interest groups can match their potent combination of money, manpower, and geographic dispersion. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has proposed reforms (of public employee pensions, of teacher tenure) that California's public sector unions fiercely oppose. And they have responded with onslaughts of negative ads, combined with noisy demonstrations at his public appearances, that have caused his popularity to plummet from stratospheric highs to abysmal lows.
And this is a bad thing? Actually, I think he gives public employees much too much credit. Arnold has managed to alienate almost everyone in California. After all, brining his approval rating a down to 34% -- down 31 points from this time last year -- is even more than powerful public employee unions can pull off.

The troubling thing is that the only initiative on the Governator's special election this coming November that is winning is the "Paycheck Protection Deception" which would curb the ability of public employee unions to use members' dues for political campaigns. The initiative currently has the support of 58% of likely voters.

Public Employees are Enemies of the People:
On the surface, these unions may come across as a benign presence in our midst. After all, they represent teachers, nurses, and other government employees who perform services that are valuable, sometimes indispensable, to all of us. What's good for them would seem to be good for us -- right? The problem, however, is that this is not even close to being right. What's good for them is sometimes quite bad for us.
Say again? What's good for public employees is quite bad for "us?" Let's put aside for a minute the question of who "us" is. Good for public employees would be...decent pay, safe working conditions, good health care plans, secure pensions, treated with respect at work, consulted during reorganizations....

OK, I'm a bit biased, having worked for AFSCME, the largest public employee union for 16 years. I ran the health and safety program, which means I was quite knowledgable about what public employees actually do every day. And most of it ain't pretty (nor is it well paying, especially where there's no union): wading through raw sewage in sewers and wastewater treatment plants, taking care of our mentally ill in understaffed, underequipped overcrowded institutions, watching over our society's most dangerous individuals in understaffed, overcrowded prisons, dealing with angry social service clients in understaffed, underfunded agencies, dealing with abused children or inspecting housing in neighborhoods that the police won't even go into, taking care of this society's poorest, sickest populations in understaffed, overcrowded public hospitals, and I could (and often do) go on and on and on....

In return, they don't have collective bargaining rights in over half the states, and even in those states only by state law or executive order that can be rescinded at any moment. Public employees in over half the states don't even have a legal right to a safe workplace. A public employee in Ohio or Massachusetts gets killed in a 25 foot trench collapse and it's "Dig him out and get back to work." End of story. Unions aren't just important for public employees, they're often a matter of life and death.

So why is treating them like real people instead of second class citizens bad for "us?" Where does society not benefit from decent treatment of those who do the jobs that this great society needs to function?

Public Employee Unions Are Enemies of Democracy:
At the heart of this problem is a genuine dilemma of democratic government: As governments hire employees to perform public services, the employees inevitably have their own distinctive interests. They have interests in job security and material benefits, in higher levels of public spending and taxing, and in work rules that restrict the prerogatives of management. They also have interests in preventing governmental reforms that might threaten their jobs. To the extent public employees have political power, therefore, they will use it to promote their own job-related interests -- which are not the same as, and may easily conflict with, what is good for the public as a whole.
How dare they be interested in jobs security and material benefits! How selfish can you get? Why can't they just accept their lot in life and assume the position? Interested in "reforms" that might threaten their jobs? What do they think? They have some right to try to keep their jobs?

Their interests may conflict with "what is good for the public as a whole". I guess "good for the public as a whole" is making sure we have a underclass to perform all of those unpleasant jobs that we can't do without and would rather not pay too much for (especially if it means more of the "T-word.") And they whine so much when we allow them to have unions.

The fact is that any time state or local governments are reorganized, it alway works out better when the front line employees are involved -- in an organized fashion. Not that it's appreciated. The irony here is that the state where public employee unions worked best with management to reorganize government most effectively and (relatively) painlessly was Indiana, which then elected Mitch Daniels as governor, who immediately eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Teachers are bad for children:
Because of union power, it is no accident that removing low-performing teachers from the classroom is virtually impossible, even though this nation has been trying to improve the public schools for decades.
Yeah, take a look around our inner city schools and tell me that teachers are the problem.

Public Employee unions are a bunch of commies:
Nor is it an accident that police officers in San Francisco may retire in their 50s and receive retirement pay equal to 90% of their final salaries for the rest of their lives, when most workers have no employer-provided retirement benefits at all.
It would really be much better for "us" if we just shot them all when they're too old to work.

The solution? Castration:
There is no way to eliminate the conflict of interest between government employees and the public at large. So the solution must focus on weakening the power of public sector unions. A Catch-22 quickly emerges here, because the unions will use all their existing power to defeat any attempts to take it away. Yet for reformers there is no alternative but to try -- by pursuing legislation that prohibits collective bargaining by government workers, for example, and pressuring for "paycheck protection" laws that require unions to get their members' permission before spending dues money on politics.

Success will not come easily, if at all. But for those who believe that democracy should represent the public interest, the fight is a good and noble one. It needs to be fought.
Paging Jerry McEntee and Ed McElroy. Your rooms at the Guantanamo Hilton are ready for check-in.

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