In Wisconsin Somebody Moved the Cheese

Public-Sector Unions Degrade the Very Concept of Unions

Public-sector employees – teachers, police, firefighters and general government employees – perform the services and offer the protections that make our lives safer and better. Without them, society would be unable to function. For these and other reasons, all of these individuals deserve our support and appreciation. None more so than the 3.8 million dedicated teachers who prepare our children to become productive members of society and in so doing, preserve our way of life.

The quality of our institutions and culture and their survival is directly proportional to the quality of the education our children receive. When our kids are blessed with well-educated and inspirational teachers, they are likely to be well-educated, too. As a consequence, it is beneficial for all of us to create, an in fact incumbent upon us, to support a system that attracts, motivates and rewards the very best teachers. Failure to do so will result in the ultimate disintegration of our society.

Despite the importance of teachers or maybe because of it, they should neither have — nor be allowed — to form a union in order to receive fair compensation for their contributions to society. (This concept applies to all public-sector employees, not just teachers.)

Unions Have an Important History

This is not to suggest that worker unions haven’t played a vital role in the development of the most powerful economic system and the highest standard of living in the world. They most assuredly have. Without unions, creation of the American middle-class would not have been possible. Without unions, our political and economic system could have degenerated into the inflexible, stratified class system reminiscent of feudal Europe. But worker unions arose from motives not quite so lofty or humanitarian.

To capitalize on the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, the US government adopted a virtually unrestrained laissez-faire attitude toward business and capital. The objective was laudable: to provide incentive for those with access to capital to invest in the infrastructure – railroads, steel, oil, mining and factories of all kinds – in order to build a platform for dynamic economic growth that would theoretically benefit all of society.

Under this approach those with investable capital were encouraged to risk their money, free of intervention by the government (in fact, often assisted by the government). Accordingly, they did not have to worry about restrictive regulations—they operated in an environment that was virtually tax- and tariff-free. In the name of “efficiency” the government not only tolerated but also sanctioned full-fledged monopolies (known as “trusts”).

This approach succeeded in creating an atmosphere and infrastructure that turbocharged American economic growth. However, it did so at a very high cost. The price for this growth was paid by unprotected workers who were exploited by these “capitalists” as much, if not more so, than the natural resources of the country. This imbalance between capital and labor created a need for and gave rise to the union movement.

At the start the of the 20th century, under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, the government began to recognize that the unrestrained power of monopolies posed a serious threat, not only to the well-being of the workers, but to the very concept of government itself. With such a realization, the government began a two-pronged approach to “bust the trusts” and balance the interests of capital and labor by (grudgingly at first) accepting the rights of workers to form a union to represent and protect their well-being. (Roosevelt also was the first president to encourage conservation efforts in an attempt to prevent private interests from exploiting natural resources.)

The objective, justification and need for unions was to correct an economic imbalance that allowed capital to exploit, with virtual impunity, the worker. Unions did not seek “equity” with capital, but they did seek to have the worker treated “equitably” for the work they performed. The rights of the workers to unionize did not come easily or without violence – perpetrated by both sides – but the movement did succeed. And, as a result, the economic growth of the country accelerated and broadened, creating the great American middle class. The irony is that, despite fierce resistance to unions, businesses benefited as much as the workers, because unions enabled the workers to earn the resources with which to buy the very products business had created.

In fact, the union movement was so successful that when coupled with vastly expanded government regulation of businesses, today few workers feel the necessity for unions. One shouldn’t forget, for example, that it was government — not the unions — that enacted legislation protecting workers against unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, unduly low wages, child labor, discrimination of many kinds, unfair dismissals, and so on. (As unions gained increased power that did give rise to corrupt leaders and abuse of the system, but that is a discussion for another time.)

The Union Pendulum Has Swung Too Far

Unfortunately, the acceptance and success of the union movement has led to the bastardization of the concept. The basic theory of a worker union is to represent and protect its members against the interests of private capital, not against government. Government represents the wants and needs of the public in general, not private interests, and while the interests of government workers should be taken into account, traditional unions are not the way to do so.

While there may be some mythology involved here, governments in this country are created “by the people, for the people.” Government workers are hired by the people to perform the services deemed necessary for society. Police are hired – not by some private corporation – but by the people to “protect and serve.” Teachers are hired by the people to teach the children of the people. It is the people – through those elected by them – who decide the quality and scope of the services they want to have provided by government workers. When government workers are allowed to unionize, then unions can be in a position to force the people to accept what they may not want. People have to be willing to pay for the government services they want, but it must be their decision.

If the people are unwilling to pay the price for an effective and professional police force or to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, then society should pay the price in the form of inferior results. It is not appropriate for public employees to use unions to impose upon the people the type and cost of government services they want, and then ask the people to pay for it.

Of course, in any discussion regarding government and the public per se, nothing is clear and simple. Public-sector unions are only a part of the financial problems we face today. Politicians, eager to pander to the public for their votes, promised expanded government services and offered exorbitant promises in order to attract workers to provide them, without providing for a way to pay for such services and promises.

Unlike worker unions that were needed to balance the embedded power of private capital, public-sector unions create the reverse situation in that a powerful group of government employees can leverage what they want against weak political leaders by threatening to withhold needed government services. This is not what unions were intended for and not the way the game should be played.

And the Moral of the Story …

It is unfair now to criticize and blame government workers for expecting payment on the promises made to them for the performance of their service. A promise made should be a promise kept; even if it may be painful. After all, the federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bailout private corporations – run into the ground by those making millions of dollars! So why shouldn’t we be willing to do the same for the promises made to government workers who did nothing wrong and make an average of $50,000 a year?

However, the imbalance that has been created by the rise of public-sector unions should be corrected. The way to do so is to eliminate public-sector unions so we move back to the original concept of government; with the people – not the people hired by the people – determining what services are needed and what they are willing to pay to receive them. We need to move the cheese back to where it belongs.

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