It's official: After three weeks of increasingly hostile political fighting between public-sector unions and forces led by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, all-out war has been declared in Wisconsin. On Monday, March 9, the GOP-controlled state Senate passed legislation that will basically strip public-sector unions of their right to collective bargaining. In retaliation, Democrats are vowing to strip Republicans of their elective offices — not only in Madison but across the country.
If current popular sentiment holds steady, they may well make good on this threat: According to a New York Times/CBS News poll published on March 1, almost twice as many Americans oppose efforts to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions as support such efforts, and a huge majority oppose cutting public workers' pay and benefits in order to close state budget gaps.
Let's hope, then, that current popular sentiment turns against the unions, and soon.
How can any compassionate person say such a thing? At a time when so many middle- and lower-income Americans have lost their jobs and homes, while many in the elite haven't even lost their bonuses, isn't it only decent to stand up against further assaults on struggling folks? Exactly whom are these Republicans targeting when they portray unions as big, fat, and overpaid? Janitors? Hospital attendants? Street cleaners?
Those are all painfully fair questions — and they should shape the way officials deal with the problem of a burgeoning public work force, not serve as an excuse to avoid the issue. Simply put, if politicians are scared away from revamping the public sector, they will be leaving in place a major structural flaw in the national economy. Ironically, no one will pay more dearly for this than the average worker.
Think about it: When education unions succeed in wringing every concession they can out of their particular piece of a school system, the squeeze is felt mainly by people who have to rely on the whole of that school system: Goodbye gym class; hello parents paying out of pocket for all kinds of "extras" — and these are not, by and large, parents who can just throw their hands up and say, “That's it, he's going to Buckley!” When transit workers' demands shut down services or drive up fares, it barely registers with the rich who ferry themselves in taxis and town cars from one gilded district to another. It hurts those who can't get to their jobs without a bus or subway — and who need to count every cent that commute costs them. When a city's police force receives so much in salary and benefits that the city is then unable to hire enough cops on the beat, who is going to feel it more? The professional who must ask the cabdriver to idle in front of the building until the doorman appears, or the woman who cleans that professional's office and has to hustle up a dark street before letting herself in? In short, when any government is forced to starve one set of programs in order to feed another, it affects the people who most need those programs — people who are rarely found at the yacht club.
Remember, too, that the people who most need public services also number among the people who are forced to fund them. When it is pointed out that public-sector workers generally earn more than their private-sector counterparts, the unions typically retort that this is only true among lower-level workers. Higher-up public employees tend to be both better educated and less remunerated. But this observation only complicates the social-justice credentials of the whole exercise, for it means that lower down on the ladder, we have public-sector workers deriving benefits from taxpayers who make less than they do. Toward the top, we have comparatively lesser-compensated (but not exactly starving) workers who enjoy such perks as job security, deriving benefits from better-compensated workers who enjoy no such perks. Not quite Germinal.
The global economic meltdown has ignited an impassioned debate between economists who argue that governments need to implement severe and sweeping austerity measures, and those who argue that such measures would only make everything worse, in part because they will curtail the ability of so many people to spend money and thus spur the economy. In the immediate term, one can certainly see the latter point – but that is precisely why, in the longer term, one should want to have fewer and fewer livelihoods wholly dependent upon government expenditure, rather than more and more, as has been the trend for decades now.
Sooner or later, that trend is going to have to be reversed. In the unimaginable event that public-sector unions decide to participate in their own rational reform, it can be reversed with minimal trauma to members. Otherwise, unions should be braced for the day that other Americans see them as adversaries to stand up to, rather than fellow citizens to stand up for. In some places, that day seems already to have come. Since taking office last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has struck a shockingly hostile pose toward the public sector. His approval ratings have gone nowhere but up.