By DEAN ZARRAS on Forbes Blog
The inevitable battle between the runaway public sector and the private sector that funds it has begun. What started recently in Wisconsin will continue to spread across the country as the unworkable fiscal mathematics that are so many state budgets finally degenerate into social unrest between the payers and the payees. More specifically, the instigators of this mess, the public sector union managements and their progressive political operatives, will struggle against their most existential threat to date. It will not be pretty.
The true nature of the issue is revealed by AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka’sbellowing about this being about the right to have collective bargaining. Not the defense of the services provided by state and local unionized workers. Not a justification for their wages that average twice that of their private sector counterparts. Not a case for maintaining medical and pension benefits that are so outside the mainstream as to be an embarrassment of riches in today’s troubled economic times.
No, Trumka’s pulling out all the stops to defend the existence of his own job.
Without conceding that workers should have the right to not join a union, Trumka’s claims amount to little more than a defense of The Machine that requires political force and financial extortion to perpetuate itself. All the while, absolutely no benefit accrues to the financiers of the situation. Indeed, only harm accrues instead.
Recent commentary by President Obama on the matter borders on the surreal:
“On the other hand, some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where, you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it’s very important for us to understand that, public employees, they’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers, and they’re firefighters, and they’re social workers and they’re police officers. You know, they make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution and I think it’s important not to vilify them, or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.”
I’d agree, let’s not vilify the individuals who hold all of these important positions — there’s no issue there. The issue is with the management and organizational structure under which they operate. Namely, the one that is bankrupting the country.
Consider Obama’s description of these employees as our “neighbors” and “friends”. He only wants that implicit call for sympathy to go in one direction. For if these workers are our friends and neighbors, and we should treat them with kindness and respect, then the reverse is also true: they should treat us (the payers) with the same. But a numerical minority using political force to promote class warfare and maintain an untenable financial situation is not treating the private sector with kindness and respect. It is the very “assault” that Obama suggests is now going on against the unions.
What Obama perceives as an assault is actually the victim fighting back in self-defense during a mugging.
When Rev. Jesse Jackson claims that this is a Martin Luther King moment, consider the irony of the oppressor fighting for the right to continue oppressing. It would be comical if it were not so damaging. Jackson’s grandstanding on behalf of the forces of thuggery would likely provoke outrage from the man who started his famous “I Have A Dream” speech with the following:
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
I’d like to hear from Reverend Jackson how public workers will be less free without the ability to collectively bargain, when they are first and foremost not free to abstain from that process. When they are not free to withhold donations to politicians they don’t support. When they are not free to advance and be rewarded according to the meritocracy that is the guiding principle behind free markets, the markets that make this country unique.
And when Obama appeals to our consideration for the “sacrifice” that public sector employees make, it’s well worth asking, “Who exactly asked anyone to make a sacrifice?“ What right do any of us have to ask that neighbors sacrifice themselves for our behalf? Unless Obama wants to make the case that society has enslaved these public sector employees against their will, then what sacrifice is going on? Simply put, there is none.
If Trumka, Jackson and Obama truly want to mount a defense of “worker’s rights”, they could see to it that union membership was truly optional, and that workers would have the freedom to act on their own behalf as individuals, not as some monolithic group. In other words, they’d be promoting the policies that fall under the term, “Right to Work“, which 22 states have adopted, not including Wisconsin, of course.Trumka obviously would first learn to fly before promoting such a platform, and the financial cost to Obama (or any other Democrat) for promoting Right to Work would make it a non-starter.
But in keeping with Obama’s appeal above, it is worth noting the truism that the situation in Wisconsin and elsewhere didn’t happen solely because of collective bargaining. Every contract put into place over the years that contained terms now proving toxic was approved by a local school board, or a state or local legislature, and ultimately tolerated by voters through their continually voting these members back into their seats and offices.
Where it was obvious that the simple math of compounding would have long term devastating effects, those consequences were ignored, either consciously or out of ignorance. In the case if the former, the policy creator committed a kind of financial crime against humanity. In the case of the latter, they were never qualified to serve in the first place. In both cases, a voting majority of the public put them there, and kept them there. No, collective bargaining didn’t cause the mess. It just facilitated it.
So in the case of the unionized teachers, perhaps any deal ultimately struck should include the requirement that their students demonstrate mastery in the areas of compound growth and basic economics. The continuation of a free and prosperous society depends on it.