A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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Unions are Important

Jeff and I have been going back and forth on unions—and it looks like we’ve finally gotten to the crux of the issue. It’s a question of influence.

Jeff lists a variety of examples where the SEIU seems to have benefitted from it’s close support of the Obama administration.. (As discussed earlier, the SEIU spent a lot of resources helping Obama in the election—though any implication that the SEIU gave millions to the Obama campaign is false.) Jeff concludes:

SEUI bought A LOT of access. Oh, and as noted above, it also bought some administration positions.

I don’t entirely agree. The SEIU was the first big union to back Obama. Compared to the other unions, the SEIU and Obama have a lot of common ground. If Andy Stern became Obama’s go to guy on unions by being there before everybody else, he did a good job of figuring out how to position himself at the right time. And if Obama puts some labor guys on the National Labor Relations Board … isn’t that entirely proper?

But Jeff’s larger point is exactly right. While the SEIU may not have bought the positions—but they certainly expected a quid pro quo for their extensive support. You can tell that much from Andy Sterns braggadocio. (Though I would interpret it as Stern trying to justify such extreme costs.) While I think the Obama campaign drew a broad enough level of support that it doesn’t owe a lot of debts to special interests, there’s no question that we have a tradition in the country of giving ambassadorship and such to big supporters. (This has happened less in the current administration—but I won’t say it hasn’t happen at all.) Money can buy access—particularly in smaller elections.

Jeff and I agree that the ability of a small group of people to wield out-sized power due to political donations or political horse-trading is a serious problem. Public sector unions are neither the only nor the most powerful power-brokers. (Incidentally, the SEIU is not a public sector union. And frankly, if public sector unions really wielded outsized influence, we’d pay teachers better.) And it’s not the only group expecting influence for campaign support. And, as Jeff implies, the SEIU brass may sometimes be more concerned with advancing itself than with its 1.5 million members, just as corporate officers might not always represent the shareholders. Too much money in politics from too few people causes problems. This problem is offset by large numbers of small donations. A healthy middle class is critical to a healthy democracy.

We’re losing that middle class. Unions are preventing it from disappearing entirely. We need a solid base of middle income folk who produce, consume, pay taxes, and have enough power to assert themselves politically, but not enough power to lord over everybody else.

Why the Tea Party is angry

Jeff Miller writes,

Is there tea party anger over teacher pay, or over (1) administrative bloat, (2) unfunded pensions, (3) difficulty of removing bad teachers. I feel your swinging at strawmen lately.

I stand by my statement that the Tea Party anger is over teacher pay—or, if you’d prefer, teacher compensation. In the alternative, the Tea Party may be swinging at fake problems—but I’d prefer to give them credit for identifying an actual issue.

Administrative bloat is a red herring, particularly as the administrators are unlikely to be part of the unions. If you count all non-teacher employees as administrators, then we’re talking about school nurses and the like. It’s easy to get upset about unspecified administrative bloat—but I’d prefer to give the Tea Party some credit for knowing what it’s talking about.

The Wisconsin pension is adequately funded—which means that it can’t be unfunded pensions. Of course, there are issues with retiree healthcare, which is a related issue. That’s a problem—though that’s only about 3 percent of Wisconsin’s total retirement bill. If this were a real issue, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for a modest increase in the health care premiums from retirees due to unanticipated medical costs—but there’s no need for a move as radical as Walker and the Tea Party want to get that taken care of. As I undertand, the unions stand ready to make those concessions—but that hasn’t satisfied either Walker or the Tea Party.

Finally the “difficulty of removing bad teachers” is like the “tort reform” of the educational world. It arises out of a legitimate concern—but it’s tangential to the actual issue. It only drives a tiny portion of the cost and could easily be addressed with a less radical measure.

I suspect Jeff and I agree on a couple points about union contracts. Provisions that make firing teachers accused of incompetence or serious misconduct overly difficult should be reviewed. I would much rather have a system that awarded teachers based on how well they teach than a system than one that protected the status quo. I would think that’s a line school administrators would want to hold in bargaining.

I’d be happy to support a proposal to reconsider certain job-security type benefits—particularly those dealing with seniority. We could, for example, do a suspension without pay for teachers accused of certain types of misconduct followed by a reinstatement with full backpay when they’re cleared. Or we could do it the other direction and do a suspension with pay (or partial-pay) that’s owed back if they’re not-cleared and make up any amount that couldn’t be paid back out of the pension. I could even support a bill that prohibited (or standardized) certain clauses in certain collective bargaining agreements.

"Getting rid of bad teachers" can’t be done with budget cuts at the state level. If you simply cut the teacher’s rights to organize and their compensation, all you’ve done is reduced the incentive to become a teacher. If anything, you’ll lose good teachers who will pursue other options. Nor have unions prevented reforms like merit pay. Determined school administrators have been able to implement such policies locally … in coordination with unions.

But that’s not what the Wisconsin protests are about. They’re about breaking the unions. The second shoe, which I believe drops today, is about tying the hands of communities to ensure they go along with Walker’s union-busting efforts.

We don’t pay teachers enough

The tea party anger directed at the supposedly over-compensated teachers is pretty disgusting. Teachers aren’t paid a whole lot compared to other professionals like doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock brokers, and so on.

A lot of this has to do with teachers being motivated by things more important than base financial self-interest. (This makes them awfully easy to exploit—and makes teachers unions particularly important.) Unfortunately, we lawyers and stock brokers frequently assume that somebody’s worth as a person is directly correlated with the compensation they’ve negotiated. We should stop doing that.

You don’t have to work here. You can work anywhere you want.

Mike Hudack, arguing that employers should not be required to negotiate with unions.

The firefighter can quit and put in an an application at McDonalds. I’m sure they’ve got openings for firefighters. The unionized grad student paid poverty wages can quit mid-dissertation. I’m sure they’ll be able to pick up where they left off at a different institution. The public school teacher can quit and take a job at a competing public school. I’m sure there’s always a competing public school nearby, right? Switching jobs is not like switching toothpaste brands. This is particularly true in the current economy.

But why don’t we do things the other way? Why not have management switch businesses. They don’t have to manufacture automobiles. They can produce anything they want. They can start a house cleaning service!

There is nothing wrong with management trying to wring concessions from unions during tough economic times. That’s how things work. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with unions trying to ask more from management when things are better. And there’s nothing wrong with unions expecting management to live up to its own end of the bargain.

In a private industry, unions are able to suggest that management could cut costs elsewhere or take other steps to increase profit. Sell more hamburgers. Negotiate with suppliers. Cut dividends to shareholders. Management doesn’t need to agree—but it’s on the table. If management says, “We need to cut your wages so we can give a massive dividend to our investors,” unions have a right to be upset.

Is it so different in the public sector? Shouldn’t unions be able to ask that management consider all options to solve the revenue gap? If Walker wants to cut union rights to find his tax cut, shouldn’t teh unions be irate?

(Source: squashed, via mikehudack)

No one is against employees holding out for more money, but employers shouldn’t be forced by law to negotiate with employees as a group.

Jeff Miller, who brings a libertarian’s perspective to the Wisconsin’s budget negotiations.

Why not? The employees are forced to negotiate with the shareholders as a group represented by the unified voice of management. Public-sector workers are forced (by law) to negotiate with tax-payers collectively. Capitalism doesn’t work if you don’t have reasonable parity in bargaining power.

Public sector unions are simply another check on the abuse of government power.

I heard that the Wisconsin unions are greedy. I also heard that the greed of the rich is what makes capitalism function. Could somebody remind me how much you need to make a year before self-interest becomes a virtue instead of a vice?

Could somebody help me straighten out my talking points?

Taking additional money out of our paychecks in order to finance a struggling government is a tax raise, which is tantamount to theft. But taking money that is earned and negotiated out of teachers’ paychecks is nothing at all like a tax increase because …

… why?

On Unions, Schools, and Detroit


But when you see what Unions have done to America…it’s hard to feel for the folks in Wisconsin.  Have you been to Detroit?  Have you really dug into the US Public School system?  Utter disasters.

Detroit will come back.  The school will be saved.  But unions need to go in order for this to happen.

Yes, Evan, I have been to Detroit. I have also dug into the public school system. Blaming “unions” for the struggles of Detroit of the public schools is a lot like blaming the budget deficit on food stamps. It’s commonly done—but it misses the actual causes.

(Edit: Evan informs me that he too has been to Detroit on a fairly regular basis over the past twelve months, has hired locally, and supports the city financially. I stand by my point—though my implicit assumption that Evan was criticizing Detroit without ever being there was clearly incorrect.)

First, the schools. When’s the last time you heard somebody say, “If you want to make a lot of money, be a teacher”? Teachers generally teach because their heart is in it. They believe in what they’re doing. And this makes them awfully easy to exploit. “Want to teach another class? It’s for the children.” “Surely you wouldn’t mind staying a few extra hours. It’s for the children.” Union representation allows negotiation to ensure reasonable compensation and a sustainable workload. Additionally, union representation makes it more difficult to sack a teacher for convenience sake. When little Jimmy fails the test and Jimmy’s parents threaten to sue the school, it’s a lot cheaper and easier for the administration to sack a teacher than to defend the law suit. The unions protect the teachers in these situations by ensuring that terminations aren’t arbitrary.

Second, Detroit. Lay off Detroit. Yes, the city has problems. I know you’ve all seen the pictures Detroit’s once-glorious train station. It’s a poetic symbol of crumbled glory. Etc..But let’s not reduce a major American city to a stereotype. Detroit’s struggling. Let me offer four reasons:

  1. There were too many eggs in the auto-industry basket. The American car manufacturers made some awfully dumb decisions spurred by some perverse incentives. They’re rebounding rapidly—but it’s going to take time. Contrary to popular myth, this wasn’t caused by the UAW. It was caused by the decision to spike a government plan for public pensions followed by a decisions to make fewer, higher-profit cars while having massive pension obligations. Oops.
  2. Kleptocracy. Yeah, I said it. There was an awful lot of corruption in Detroit. Kwame is gone. The schools are being reformed. But the corruption was generally at the managerial level (read: not unions).
  3. Racism. White flight to the suburbs was particularly devastating in Detroit. If you just cross a city line, you see some shockingly oppulent neighborhoods. Detroit did not invent racism. Neither did the unions.
  4. You. No, not you personally. At least, not just you. But the continued willingness lift Detroit up as an example of human misery isn’t helping the city. Detroit has poverty. So does your city.

It’s true that things are a lot less flexible when you have unions. Being married is a lot like that. You’re forced to take somebody else’s views into account. You can’t go about radically changing things without consulting or negotiating the process. Sometimes its difficult. Sometimes you’re right and your spouse is wrong. Sometimes it’s the other way. The unions aren’t what’s holding anybody back.