As my lovely research assistant and I would sit around the dinner table absorbing the day’s news the question would often arise between us; Unions and Civil Service protections, “why both”? It was a question that did not seem to appear in the public debate, until Wisconsin.
Private sector union membership rests at about 7% of the workforce and has been declining for decades. Public sector unions have grown to about 30% of that workforce. The reasons for decline are manifold. In some cases contractual overreach so changed the competitive position of companies as to impact viability. In some cases costs increased to a degree that made foreign relocation of plants an economic necessity. In other cases a cold calculation by companies who saw the impact of globalization and gravitated to environments that facilitated cost effective production. Work rules so incomprehensible that union officials could not unravel them and would eventually not respond to members or business officials with questions as to their application. The reason for public sector Union growth in the context of general decline is also clear, politics!
There were other factors, experienced personally by your humble correspondent. Militancy grew as union membership declined. Negotiations were not an exercise in finding an appropriate middle ground they were battles to be waged with willful and pre-meditated disregard for labor law. The opinion from my own lawyers; “let it go, no one is going to do anything about the union’s illegal activities”! Seeing myself represented as a “criminal” behind bars on street pole posters was a unique experience. Having unions literally attack my business in an attempt to drive clientele away never seemed to make sense as driving away business meant less work for union members; it happened, more than once! Union press conferences thirty minutes after both sides agreed not to do so across the negotiating table.
As my “wanted poster” appeared on the streets of Washington D.C. they were accompanied by backdoor requests from Union officials to “please do something, to move the negotiations along in our favor”. Hints of “special favors” based on abandoning my responsibilities to the negotiating group. In other union negotiations the locations changed but the tactics did not.
Sitting on the oversight board for the Union Pension Fund generated another set of unique experiences. Special requests for aid from union members were, typically, supported by the business representatives on the board and rejected by union officials. In the end, I was left with the evidenced perception that big union concerns were focused more on dollars and power than on members. The same perception exists related to Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Governor will win this battle; he will win for a number of reasons. The fairness calculation applied by Wisconsin citizens in the context of the budget deficit, their personal situations, economic losses they have sustained will result in a rejection of union demands. The option of decreasing the work force by hundreds or decreasing the cost of that work force generally is an exercise in common sense for most. The Governor’s position of maintaining the employee population so that services can be delivered is logical to most. I’ve personally encountered circumstances where union officials would rather I lay off a percentage of the union workforce in favor of the sacred cow of seniority, as opposed to spreading the available work around to as many as possible. They cared not, as temporarily dismissed employees still had to pay their dues to maintain their status. They would also refuse to deliver the message to their members themselves.
Unions spending hundreds of millions on political action as opposed to strike funds or pension plan funding in anticipation of a pension fund bailout, will eventually impact the general thinking. A President who throughout his administration has been so fully focused on less than 10% of the workforce in the context of 18% real unemployment will also serve as context for the argument as will recent pronouncements from the NRLB.
“Hey, that’s a pretty good deal”, will occur to the people of Wisconsin, they will engage in a fairness evaluation. They will look back at who and how the deal occurred. They will return to perceptions, in evidence in November, which rejected that manner of governance: delayed satisfaction, delayed funding, delayed pain and an absence of accountability based on the desires of a minority, who are supposed to serve them.
They will eventually look upon these demonstrations as the worse kind of collective whining. They will reject the pressures of groups not based in Wisconsin. They will reject the tactics; they will reject the lack of common sense. They will reject the idea that any group should be excluded from what is required to correct the fiscal circumstances.
Unions have, frequently, overplayed their hand albeit not so publically as in Wisconsin; for a time that overplay worked, but it has been quite a while since that was the case. Unions have, in most cases, limited the over play to specific companies or industries where impact was limited to an easily defined group of people. That is not the case in Wisconsin where it is now a national issue.
The Wisconsin situation will expose union thinking, strategies, attitudes and tactics for all to see. Politico reports that many union officials are uncomfortable with the Wisconsin situation. What are they afraid of? They are afraid of losing the argument and the predictable consequences of a very public rejection of their most fundamental underpinnings. They are afraid that public sector employees on the losing end of this argument will look at eliminating union dues as a method to “make up” for higher health and pension costs to the individual.