By Dave Swenson
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The goings-on in Wisconsin regarding their governor’s all out assault on public sector collective bargaining rights is being repeated in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and a key topic of discussion in a number of other states. Public worker detractors have the bully pulpit; they’ve been newly enabled in state assemblies and governorships, and they have used their new found voices to mount a potent assault on public employees.
Their first chug in this little union-busting-train-that-could was that public employees enjoyed much greater pay than the private sector. As I’ve written (here
), and as have many others, those assertions are easily proved false. The next stop on the line focused on the public sector benefits gravy train. Government workers, they declare, get oodles of freebies that the rest of us have to pay for. And unionized public workers exercise disproportionate power over the public that government managers have heretofore been unable to counter.
This anti-union assault actually got its early momentum during the auto bailout discussions in 2008 and 2009. Expert after expert concluded that were it not for the unions, America’s automakers would not have been in the dire straits they found themselves. Greedy unions had exacted too high wages, too many benefits, and, horrors, much too lucrative retirement terms under a series of collectively bargained contracts.
OK, let’s parse this. This nation’s unions negotiated with management over the decades, and between the two of them they signed many agreements that were mutually satisfactory to both parties at the time of signing. But that is not how the story gets played in the press and in living room discussions. Auto unions are instead described as having exacted extortionary terms that the poor multi-billion dollar and supposedly talent-infused conglomerates for whom they worked could not counter.
To assume such highway robbery is to assume out and out long-term managerial idiocy among our auto executives. Are we to conclude that the nation’s auto companies had no actuaries in their employ that could have foreseen an impending collision between their long-term employment-related commitments relative to their existing and future retirees? Are we to conclude that armed-with-an-MBA senior management persistently agreed to labor terms that would undermine long-term profitability if not guarantee insolvency?
Or might we assume these car makers were in fact victims of their own gross and collective managerial ineptness that had precious little to do with their relationship with workers and very much to do with successive rounds of industry leadership that had guessed way too wrong for way too long?
The same applies across the board to the states and localities that are currently battling fervent and newly energized anti public union initiatives. A majority of public workers are not unionized, but there is the general sense that nearly all public workers are. So, detractors get to mix public union and public worker in any sentence to get the desired response.
For example, here in Iowa House Bill 525 is in committee. It proposes to limit the number of topics that public unions can bargain over, and its supporters believe it is needed to make the state’s workforce costs more manageable. Testifying in support of the measure at a recent hearing, and as covered by Iowa Public Radio, Mike Ralston, President of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, asserted that unlike the private sector, public workers got free health care benefits that Iowans can no longer afford.
See how interchangeable this is? A public union bargaining limits bill easily morphs into a complaint about all public worker benefits that is, again, thoroughly unfounded.
Your total work income and mine include the value of the wages and salaries we receive in our work, the value of our employers’ contributions to mandated social insurance accounts like Social Security and Medicare, and the value of all benefits that we receive like employee health care and retirement in lieu of wages and salaries. All payroll workers’ total earnings are similarly composed. Mr. Ralston very likely receives thousands of dollars of health care benefits from his employer that he does not pay for, so do all of his employees and all of the executives of the industries that he represents. He and his charges are no different from me, but he would have us believe that I, the public employee, am getting a free ride at the public’s expense and that he and his associates are hard working people who, in contrast to freeloaders like me, pay their own freight. What a convenient canard for Mr. Ralston.
Say it over and over again and little minds believe it.
And when it comes to public employees and public unions, their detractors have been persistently and foolishly consistent on topics like this.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and a community and regional economics analyst and educator. He also teaches planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa.