Sunday, February 20, 2011

Union busting or self-preservation?

Like so many of my blogs and other essays, this one was inspired by my two-cents-worth I added as part of a larger discussion of the topic of public education (thanks for the inspiration, Jennifer and Josh!). I've added a little more here than where this was originally posted and cleaned-up any typing or grammatical errors that were there, of course.

The legislative battles over collective bargaining for public employees have sparked multiple firestorm debates and discussions. We're seeing this take shape both here in Ohio and in Wisconsin.

What bother me are the notions being spread that public employees are being denied the right to collectively bargain and they will face abusive working conditions.

First of all, no law can deny anyone – whether they are publicly employed or not – the right to affiliate with any labor organization. This is guaranteed by the Freedom of Assembly clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

So, that argument is laid to rest pretty quickly.

The key point being deliberately ignored by many people in the broader conversation is to whom the politicians, their appointed and hired administrators, and the publicly employed laborers are supposed to be answerable. We are their bosses, not the governor, state senators, state reps, county commissioners, township trustees, or municipal office-holders. We, the voters and taxpayers are their rightful bosses. And, for decades, we have been steadily pushed right out of the loop on collective-bargaining contract negotiations.

No one is saying workers of any stripe have no right to collective bargaining. But, it is time we returned the service portion to the key old phrase "public service." These jobs were never intended to become tenured, lifelong positions requiring a near-act-of-God in order to terminate an ineffective employee: especially when it comes to education.

Among the new terms Wisconsin's legislators are looking put into law are calling for increases on behalf of all public employees with their own contributions to their retirement plans and health insurance coverage. They are all in an uproar in Madison: but the punch line there is the potential new contribution levels are still well below (in some instances half that of) what the average private sector worker pays into their respective plans out of each paycheck.

But, we're supposed to believe these proposed working conditions constitute abuse of the public sector. Give me a break.

Also, the vast majority of states are facing monstrous unfunded liabilities. According to a study released a year ago by the Pew Center on the States, when you combine the retirement obligations for public employees of all 50 states, they face a grand total $1 trillion shortfall in their ability to meet $3.35 trillion in total liabilities.

Illinois is in the most extreme situation. That state is projected to have $131 billion in such liabilities by the end of the current fiscal year and only $46 billion in available assets (roughly 35%) to cover them.

The majority of states are facing such legacy-cost obligations at varying degrees of severity.

I would contend that if the unions are so adamant they have the support of the people, then they ought to agree to my idea of putting all negotiated contract proposals at the state and local levels up for a public referendum vote. That would require all the terms of each contract to be made available for public scrutiny and evaluation well in advance of the day of the election. If they have that all-important public support they claim, then they should have no problem embracing that "pure democracy" for which they regularly clamor.

A focused discussion on public education

Perhaps the single-greatest point of contention when it comes to America's public sector workforce is education.

While most of the problems with public education in America are the combined result of federal policy (Department of Education) and teachers unions, at the state and local levels dealing with issues of collective bargaining is the area where these governments can have the most significant influence.

Where the unions have had the most intense impact is they have gone beyond merely engaging in collective bargaining for "fair" salaries and other compensation for their vocation. These unions have sought to create work environments where their members enjoy job protection to such a degree (especially once they've "earned" tenure) they cannot be dismissed except under the most extreme circumstances – and even then it depends on where you're examining this condition.

A tenured teacher enjoys a work setting which allows for little to no regard for the basic principle of job performance – half of that is the result of the deliberate dilution of what constitutes job performance while the other component is the set of legal hurdles (enormously expensive ones at that) in place inhibiting the process of getting a defective teacher terminated. The most extreme examples of that are the "Rubber Rooms" in New York's school district.

Human nature being what it is, this opens-up room for a growing number of people in this profession to become perilously comfortable with their station in the workplace – at the expense of our children. It's a problem that has grown pervasive to the point of becoming institutional in nature.

And all that is before you even factor-in the influence within the vocation by its vocal and active members who make up its left-leaning political culture – a culture whose size within the education profession is often debated but whose impact is undeniable.

Getting back to my original point, in this situation there gradually becomes little room for dissenting views among peers. This is why we rarely – if ever – hear of internal reforms coming about in any of the local chapters of whichever union represents a given school district. What usually has to happen is what we're seeing taking shape here in Ohio and in Wisconsin: so-called union-busting proposed legislation.

Until something gives in this process, the good teachers will continue to be overshadowed and even swallowed-up by the education system and the work environment that has evolved within it.

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