Why Public Sector Unions?

Published March 23, 2011

The debate over public sector collective bargaining, which would be largely banned in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, continues to rage, even here in Green Lake County.

Some here claim collective bargaining is a “right” and that Gov. Walker cannot tamper with it. Others say collective bargaining is a privilege, noting how it is abused in Milwaukee, where male teachers claim a “right” to Viagra.

There is, of course, no “right” to collective bargaining. But there is no question that it is a hallowed tradition in the United States. That’s because it arose out of horrendous working conditions in the workplace in the early part of the last century, literally saving workers’ lives.

But is it needed today? Why do teachers and other white-collar public employees need or even want to be union members? I wonder.

Maybe it’s an age thing. I am a Baby Boomer, raised in a staunch union family on the south side of Chicago. In the late 1920s, my grandfather, a butcher, died at the age of 40, leaving behind my father, then 12, and his widow, my grandmother.

Like many women back then, Grandma Alice had never worked outside the home and had no job skills. So it fell to my dad to support them both. The butchers’ union came to the rescue. It gave my dad had a job at the Chicago Stockyards – using a sledge hammer to stun cows before slaughter.

When he got a little older, union butchers taught him how to convert a side of beef into edible chunks. Throughout the Great Depression, the union arranged for him to work and train on Saturdays in one neighborhood butcher shop or another. When work ended on Saturday night, the shop owner usually gave him a package of meat to take home. That fed him, my grandmother, and their entire neighborhood for the coming week. They survived. Which means I, born later, owe my life to the union.

Many unions were then – and still are – known as “brotherhoods.” Butchers, Teamsters, Electrical Workers, Plumbers. And indeed they were. They taught young people skills and thus rescued many families from poverty. They looked out for one another, like they did for my dad.

This, to me is “labor” in need of unions—guys risking their lives to earn a living by wielding sledgehammers and hefting sides of beef and using razor-sharp knives and band saws to make steaks and hamburger. There was no such thing back then as OSHA, as there is now, inspecting workplaces for conditions that threatened workers’ lives and safety. There was no such thing back then as the Department of Labor, enforcing laws limiting child labor, and there were no laws then limiting hours worked and providing for overtime. Unions were necessary, indeed vital.

But as I entered the workforce, many years later, armed with my college degree – first in my family to get one – and forced by my employer to lift nothing heavier than a pencil, I certainly didn’t consider myself management, but for sure I did not think of myself as “labor.”

I became a newspaper reporter, which I did not view as a job needing protection from greedy employers. I remember covering a flash flood that swept away a tiny child. My job that day and night was to wait and watch until responders found the body. It took about 20 hours. The time involved didn’t matter—I was not a laborer, I was a professional. I had to wait, however long it took, until the body was found, so the parents could grieve and so I could write my story.

Later, reporters like me were told we had to take “compensatory time off” for such work because we were considered “labor” by the National Labor Relations Board. We were all offended – it wasn’t management exploiting us, but just a situation like a missing child or a huge fire or a bloody car accident – and it was our job as professionals to put in whatever time it took.

After all, I had friends then in Vietnam covering the war for Stars and Stripes. Would they claim time-and-a-half because the Viet Cong fired at them for too many hours? But that didn’t matter. We state-side reporters were paid “wages” based on our “hours.” We were laborers. Like my father with the sledge hammer. To this day, I do not understand why.

Nor do I understand the uproar in Madison on the “right” to collective bargaining for public employees.

I do understand, conceptually at least, the need for collective bargaining in the private sector, although in my view this may be an antiquated concept. Unions like the United Auto Workers and many others have bankrupted their employers, or nearly so, with union demands. Wages, due to free markets, have to be kept competitive; otherwise workers will move to employers paying more. But, in the private sector, wages can’t be too high or employers, all of them, will be driven out of business.

I don’t understand – and I mean this sincerely – how the same concerns apply to public employees. If a person accepts a job with the State of Wisconsin, the County of Green Lake, or the Green Lake School District, they must join a union. They are forced to pay union dues. That war chest then goes to fund the campaigns of mostly Democratic officials at the national and state levels.

These donations have a local impact. Under Democratic domination, rules are passed leaving local officials (through mandatory union-dominated arbitration and other laws) little choice but to bow to union demands or giving them few other options.

Take a look at the Green Lake County budget, which is posted on line at http://www.co.green-lake.wi.us/. In general, benefits add about 40% of the costs of salaries on top of them. Every time a job opening at the county is posted, hundreds of people apply. Not a surprise. To the salary of about $38,000, the county adds payments of about $21,000 in pension, health care and other benefits, in general.

Green Lake County has about 100 employees and four separate unions. Three of them are affiliated with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Union dues are paid by local employees to the AFSCME national, which was the largest contributor to Democrats in the 2010 elections. Campaign contributions of $87.5 million were made nationally, besting the United States Chamber of Commerce, that icon of (alleged) corporate greed.

To me, this whole system seems questionable. So I ask, why do clerical workers in county government need a union? Because that greedy evil County Board will force them to work in decrepit hovels with razor sharp knives like my father? No, take a look at the $32 million brand-spanking new and glittering building where they labor. Because they work with sharp knives and band saws? No, take a look at their computers. The worst they would suffer is a paper cut.

Truly, I do not understand the point of public sector unions in Green Lake County . To those of you who advocate them, tell me. Please.

Maureen Martin, J.D. ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.