Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Public unions' symbiotic relationship with government

In the private sector, union membership is declining. This is primarily because many of the laws and terms unions have fought so hard for over the years are now incorporated into law.

Despite the political claims of 'greed' being attributed to owners and managers in the private sector, everyone - unions included - understands that a company has to make money in order for the company to survive. If the company doesn't survive there are no jobs and no need for a union to represent the workers.

It is this basic fundamental, combined with the need to balance opposing interests (worker vs. management) in the adversarial relationship that results in agreements both sides can live with in order to keep the company viable.

But with government unions, the relationship between employee and employer is symbiotic - not adversarial. This basic difference accounts for much of the current problems public entities are facing when it comes to unsustainable compensation terms - terms that are bankrupting governments around the country, and here in Toledo.

The public sector unions rely upon agreements negotiated with mayors, governors, etc. They then rely upon votes by elected council members, commissioners, trustees, school board members or legislatures. These same individuals who are actually deciding upon the terms of the contracts are the same people who beg for endorsements from those same unions.

Elected officials seek union endorsements - and the contributions and volunteers that come along with those endorsements. The people making the decision about the compensation and other working terms are often dependent upon the recipients for their elected position.

The taxpayer, the ones the elected officials are supposed to be representing, is more often than not left out in the cold - consistently being expected to fork over more money in taxes and fees so the benefits can flow to both sides (government and union).

This is clearly a conflict of interest, but one that is never raised because it would result in the end of the mutually-beneficial arrangement.

Last month, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell suggested that voters should be able to have a vote on compensation terms like pensions. This is a terrific idea, but one that is not likely to make it to the ballot box.

Why? Because the people who have to decide to put it on the ballot are the same people who have to vote on the contracts - the members of Toledo City Council who are dependent upon those same unions for election. Again - the symbiotic relationship that has each side looking out for the other to the detriment of the taxpayers.

This is not a criticism of the unions - I don't blame individuals for wanting to join together to form a union and I don't blame them for doing what unions are supposed to do: get the best possible deal for those they represent.

The problem is the elected officials who too often forget that they're supposed to be doing the exact same thing: getting the best deal for the taxpayers they represent. It's too easy to view the taxpayers as a never-ending source of revenue rather than the employers they actually are. And, of course, the ultimate responsibility belongs with the taxpayers who'd rather vote for largess and/or the 'party' and/or the same name when election times roll around.

So what is the solution? Well, I like the idea of voters having a say on public union contracts. But I wouldn't limit it to just the pension terms. I'd make it the whole contract, including such items as vacation schedules, paid holidays, reimbursement for clothing and tools, educational reimbursement, etc.

This would do two things. One, it would allow voters to actually see and, hopefully, understand just what they're paying for. And, two, it would bring public compensation more in line with private sector compensation for similar types of jobs. I doubt that the general voting public will approve terms so much more generous than what they could ever hope to have.

Additionally, I believe it would allow the public to have a better understanding of the overall city budget and the priorities for spending. For instance, if voters were to approve a pay increase for public employees, they'd realize that the money has to come from somewhere. They'd either support cuts in other areas of the budget or be forced to support more taxation/fees/revenue to cover the compensation costs they were approving. They would be active participants in the finances of the city, rather than just complainers.

**SIDE NOTE: But then, I believe that no taxes should be withheld from paychecks - that every person should have to make quarterly tax payments so they realize exactly how much of their money is going to government. Whoever came up with the 'withholding' concept was brilliant because the payers never have the money in hand to realize what's being taken away. And I also believe that election day should be the same day your taxes are due - but what do I know?

If you notice, however, since the mayor made the suggestion, nothing has been done and the idea is no longer in the public discussion. This should not surprise anyone - with the symbiotic relationship between the unions and the council, Toledo council members wanted nothing at all to do with this idea.

The public should get behind Mayor Bell on this. We can use the same logic politicians have been using for so long when it comes to them voting to put tax levies on the ballot: let the people decided.


An American Patriot said...

"...and I don't blame them for doing what unions are supposed to do: get the best possible deal for those they represent."

This is a sticky situation, Maggie. This isn't why Unions were spawned back in the day. Unions were necessary because of the lack of employee rights and a general poor treatment of employees by the employers. Unions went a long way towards correcting most, if not all, of those situations.

The original Unions were about making sure the employees were treated right; as humans, with human rights. Today's Unions are pretty much what you said. They aren't about making sure the employees are treated right or not mistreated, they are about getting as much for their members as possible, which is quite a bit more than fair treatment.

Maggie Thurber said...

I agree with you, Am. Patriot, that the purpose of unions todays has warped considerably from their origins.

But, to me, 'getting the best possible deal' would include their original purpose of 'protecting' the members.

It's just that the 'best possible deal' is no longer focused solely being treated correctly.

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