Started writing a response to comments on my last post, and it just got longer and longer, so I’m turning it into a separate post…
Responding to what several of you have said: Yeah, I’m almost positive we DON’T, and CAN’T, have public-employee unions in SC, and normally I would just say that flat-out. But something I read not long ago confused me on that point.
Here’s what shook my confidence on that (which I was half-remembering when I wrote this post last night — a friend reminded me enough of the details that I was able to look it up)… It was in a story during the city elections in Columbia last year:
VanHouten and three other police officers have formed a chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, and their first public act was to endorse Steve Benjamin’s candidacy for mayor…The police officers say they want to model their organization after the Columbia Firefighters Association, which doesn’t practice collective bargaining or negotiate contracts with the city but does call itself a union. That organization has been active since the 1960s but only recently has begun to flex its political muscle….
This boggles the mind: Why on Earth would anyone in South Carolina want to CALL their organization a union — which brings all sorts of calumny and resentment down upon their heads in this right-to-work state, which means they get all the BAD PR from being called that — when they get none of the ADVANTAGES of actually BEING a union, i.e., collective bargaining? You got me.
Anyway, though, I think I can go back now to saying confidently that we DON’T have public employee unions in South Carolina. My point is, we don’t have ’em, and don’t need ’em.
As for Kathryn’s suggestion that you only get lousy employees if you don’t have unions, I disagree: We have many very fine, dedicated, smart people in state government in South Carolina. You just don’t hear much about them because they keep their heads down and do their jobs and try not to draw the attention of the crazies at the State House — the people you DO hear about.
However, let me say that I DO share Tired Old Man’s concern about the fact that in state government, we’ve had a ” series of digressions from past personnel policies that protected state employees.”
I believe strongly in good pay, good benefits and good working conditions for public employees. I think, as an expression of the values of society, we should treat them better in many cases than employees are treated in the private sector (I hear tell that sometimes they even get laid off, ahem). And in the past, we had a consensus for that, in SC and elsewhere in this country — before despising people who dedicate their lives to public service became a political movement. Their pay was never good, but the benefits were, and so was the job security, so there was a balanced tradeoff. Personally, I want any society I’m a party of to treat its employees far better than private companies who lay people off to get an uptick in the stock price. (In fact, I’m marveling at what’s happened to our society that private companies are unashamed to do that. I remember when executives took pride in taking care of their employees. But then, I’m getting long in the tooth.)
That’s what worries me about the proposed pension changes — which I plan to question Nathan Ballentine (a sponsor) about when I see him later this week. There are some public benefits I think are TOO generous — such as full retirement after 28 years. But in general, I want the people loyally working for ME and my fellow citizens to get a decent, fair deal. The last thing I want is to have a union turning that relationship into an adversarial one. Which is what unions do.
By the way, I used to work for a publisher who had a saying, which went something like this: “Companies that get unionized usually have asked for it.” (It was therefore his strategic aim never to give employees such motivation.) I agree. Ditto with public entities, going back to Tired Old Man’s point. To me, when you get to the point that a union comes into your company, something that is essential to civil society is lost. Yes, I realize that the bosses usually started the downward slide in civility, but the formation of a union is to me the last nail in that coffin.
I think it would particularly be tragic for state employees in SC to become unionized. There is already suspicion, and sometimes hostility, between them and the Republicans who run this state. My God, can you imagine how that would be escalated if the anti-government ideologues were actually able to call them, accurately, UNIONS? Warring camps, that’s what we’d have, and the ugliness in the air (already pretty unpleasant after 8 years under a governor who despises the state employees who worked for him for the simple fact that they WERE state employees) would be far worse than anything we’ve ever seen here. The very air of Columbia would smell and taste of bile, permanently. Oh, and for my liberal Democratic friends who think that’s worthwhile, let me clue you in on something: The unionized state employees would LOSE that bitter, adversarial battle. Over and over and over again.
I believe in treating public (and private) employees right, to the point that they don’t want a union. I think that’s smart, but I also think it’s the right thing to do.
From Pete Williams at MSNBC: “34 [states] specifically require school districts to engage in collective bargaining with government workers, and 11 others allow collective bargaining. In those 45 states, including Wisconsin, laws specify which issues can be subject to bargaining, such as pay, benefits, hours, and tenure. The other five states — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — prohibit collective bargaining by any public employees, including teachers.”
So I gather you think that Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, these “leaders” in education and public services…should be the model the rest of the country should emulate?
Phillip, that’s a silly question. Obviously, those states have a lot of good things SC doesn’t have, because of the leadership decisions that have been made there.
That has ZERO to do with the fact that there are public employee unions there.
Only if you think in partisan terms do you see a more progressive outlook toward economic development, public infrastructure and education goes hand-in-hand with unions (as in, “Let’s see, Democrats are for all of those things, so they’re all good” — or all bad, if you’re a Republican).
Me, I’m for a far wiser course than SC has followed on economic development, infrastructure and education — and I’m opposed to public employee unions. Because I can see the things have nothing to do with each other. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I oppose parties so much — they aggregate a bunch of positions that have zero to do with each other, and pretend they all go hand-in-hand with a unifying ideology, as in “all right-thinking people are for good public schools, and all right-thinking people are for public employee unions,” when they don’t when they just don’t add up at all.)
So the question you raise makes no sense to me. Sure, I’d like us to do a lot of the things that people in those states have been smart enough to do. But I don’t want to buy the trouble they have with public employee unions, thank you very much.
I know that to a partisan ear, that sounds inconsistent. But it isn’t.
Well said Brad.
I wrote something of my experiences with unions last night after reading your post. The happenings in WI definitely give us an opportunity to use this as a battleground and begin ridding our society of unions.
Much of the terrible treatment of employees in both the public and private sectors could be eliminated if the economy turned around. I saw that in my part time job over the five years I worked there. When the economy boomed we were treated reasonably well because it was difficult to hire replacements. As the economy soured so did the companies treatment of employees because it would have been easy to find replacements. I finally quit when the money was just not worth the crap. But others didn’t have that option. It’s a shame when corporate greed results in such sorry treatment of workers. The one best defense against that kind of abuse is a union. It’s called countervailing power. As long as one side has power and chooses to abuse it they suffer no consequences. The cynic in me believes that companies don’t want the economy to improve because then they’d have to deal with labor issues again. Right now the corporate elite pretty much hold all the cards.
I appreciate (and agree with) your comment about avoiding the need to trigger the formation of a union. But I am curious about whether that implies you think there is a threshold of behavior on the part of an employer that would require employees to act, particularly if the employer is the State or Federal government. It seems like the converse of your comment.
I’m not sure I agree that forming a union is the last nail in the coffin of a civil workplace. Doesn’t that imply the ultimate decision for uncivil behavior always originates in the workers? That doesn’t seem fair.
By the way, not to play “gotcha” here, but there actually is a civil service workers union in the UK that is ~ 90 yrs old. Their website is interesting (http://www.fda.org.uk/).
I’ll allow, it’s hard to say, empirically, what the actual net effect of public-sector unions in WI is, with regard to impact on institutional excellence or competence. Definitely worth studying. But, when I look at WI’s public-sector institutions, and compare them with SC’s…it’s very clear that one of these states has their house in much better order, and it ain’t us. To say the collective bargaining agreements have ZERO to do with that seems, errr, hasty, and faux-omniscient. We should study that relationship more.
Brad, when I listen to you pontificate with some condescension on these entities with which you have no serious experiential familiarity, I am reminded of the virgin who didn’t much care for sex.
Brad– Nobody on this blog will defend more vigorously the quality of our state’s and especially our city’s (well, MY city’s) employees. SC is a right-to-work state, so there are no meaningful unions in the private sector to lure away more qualified employees!
As far as what an employee association wants to call itself–for a lot of us, “union” isn’t a dirty word.
I fail to see why public employees should be unable to join together to negotiate. It is much too late to worry about unions creating an adversarial relationship between public employees and taxpayers. Elected officials (especially Republicans) have long since taken care of that, demonizing public employees at every opportunity. It helps to distract people from the real causes of their problems. Furthermore, money taken from the pay or pension of a public employee can equal another special interest tax break, which can equal another campaign contribution.
Actually, the development of bureaucracies was a crucial step toward the modern state, providing necessary stability even when leadership changes. Something is seriously wrong when “bureaucrat” is automatically taken as a negative term.
Actually, it is. In South Carolina, it is. Argue all day about whether it SHOULD be, but there’s no question that calling yourself a union has a political cost in this state, just as if you’d used the F word in public. OK, maybe not that bad… more like saying “bastard,” or “bitch.” That’s the level of heat you’re asking for when you use the word.
My point, however, is that it’s extraordinarily foolish. It’s completely unnecessary to call yourself that, especially since you AREN’T that. The word carries a cost, so who on Earth would want to create an additional problem by using the word?
If you DO form an actual union — a bargaining unit, which you’ve decided you need because you can’t get what you need any other way — then you probably ought to go ahead and call it that, just to be honest. Sure, you’ll take a lot of heat, but you’ve decided that it’s a necessary course of action, and the potential benefit is worth the trade-off.
But to take that heat for NOTHING? It makes no sense.
In a related issue, there is a great deal of discussion on the web of late about the income distribution in the USA. As measured by something called the GINI coefficient income distribution has become decidedly more skewed in favor of the wealthy since about 1967. Even more interesting our GINI ranking among the nations of the world is falling. Nations like Sweden and Japan have far less income disparity than we do. Traditional high disparity nations like Brazil and Mexico are closing the gap with the US. This trend coincides with a dramatic drop in union participation. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Workers banding together to advocate/campaign for better working conditions, wages, and benefits that as an individual, I can’t achieve. A review of history shows us how important the labor movement was for all modern working folks. Let’s see: minimum wage, 40 hour work week, child labor, pension plans, work safety, health insurance to name just the big ones. None of that would be a reality today with organized labor.
If you don’t think worker safety is an issue look at the track records for WVa coal mines that are unionized and those that aren’t. It’s a substantial body count we got there. The difference is like night and day between unionized mines and nonunion mines.
In SC if we did away with unions half the law firms would have to lay off staff retained to prevent unions.
So what do we call the organization that get the part-time members of the Lege generous pay, per diem expenses, pension and health benefits — not a union but a political party.
Can we call the SC Medical Association what it is–a doctor’s union.
Its all in how you look at it and what you name it.
No, actually, the SC Medical Association is a professional association, just like the SC Education Association, which (and this is going to come as a shock to some of the haters of public education) is NOT a union…
Oh, you’ll love this: when you search for the SCEA on Google, the little blurb you get describes it as “Union representing public school teachers in the state. Affiliated with the National Education Association.”
I browsed around briefly on the website to see if the SCEA is foolish enough to call ITSELF a union when it has no collective bargaining, but couldn’t find it. A gold star to anyone finding it (because, unfortunately, I fear it might be there — which would be a sign of great foolishness, as with the firefighters).
Brad, having lived in both Wisconsin and South Carolina,, it pains me to see you playing along with the Know-Nothing contingent in our state leadership, even if it for your own principled reasons. I am no fan of unions. I belonged to one briefly but did not enjoy the experience. However, many years of experience have taught me the lesson that in any advanced society, the most effective way to humble the exalted pretentions of the wealthy and powerful is to carry a big enough club to inflict pain on them if needed. It’s needed now and the ordinary employee hasn’t a club handy.
Sounds like the police group should have called themselves a “guild.”
Anyone who thinks that unions are anti-business and anti-government hasn’t dealt with many. Union members are American citizens like everyone else, and it’s the guilds that insist on professional standards, not just from their membership, but from management as well. Unions force managers to deal with employees honestly and fairly. That’s what it’s all about.
I work at a newspaper that was due to be put out of business by illegal collusion on the part of the owners and managers. The newspaper guild, with its national membership and legal access, went to bat for us and saved us, creating a business plan that allowed us to survive. Anti-business? Hardly. Unless your idea of proper business is for corporations to destroy their own products in favor of momentary executive compensation.
If these newly elected “responsible” governors really want to run local government on a businesslike basis, they’ll start firing American employees and outsourcing public services to India.
MYTH: I oppose unions. Isn’t that what we are?
FACT: Technically, no. We are an association of people who come together who share common interests and a goal of improving the public education system, for students and for educators. But, if you believe that people that organize themselves to advocate for students, for members, and for public education makes up a union, then yes we are a union.
Haha! Their answer is, no, we are not a union. But, yes, we are.
Yes, that word “union” is toxic, just like “liberal”. Sad.
Anyway, at least SCEA is a shade more honest than SCMA.
Good points. The doctors are organized. Big business is organized through the chamber of commerce. Big Pharma and insurance have their own lobbying efforts because they are organized. Rank and file labor is repressed due to a lack of organization. Hence the poor GINI rating. Time to bring back and enhance Unions. No more of a dirty word than liberal.
There is a huge difference between the rationale for private and public sector unions.
Let’s not mix apples and oranges over this – from either perspective.
Again, I repeat that as a taxpayer, and thus the payer of the salies and wages of those persons employed in the public sector I find it improper that I would be supporting a union that did not have the same interests as as I. herefore, in a sense this would be the same as forced taxation without representation that was one of the basis for beginning this nation as a Republic. A private sector union is an entirely different matter.
David Brooks has an interesting commentary on public vs. private sector unions and the situation in Wisconsin.
@Jim Duffy – Because you are a taxpayer does not mean that your interests are precisely the same as those of government employees, who of course are also taxpayers. The interests of employer-taxpayers and employee-taxpayers may converge in the desire to provide good government, but they are not the same. At its most extreme, the interests of the employer-taxpayers would be to pay nothing for government services, while of course the employee-taxpayers are interested in being paid for their work. There is an inherent tension between these two roles.
Second, I disagree that public unions cause something similar to “forced taxation without representation.” Taxpayers have representation in negotiations with public unions – their elected government officials. If taxpayers are unhappy with what their elected officials do, the remedy is to vote them out of office.
Any group can advocate – even lobby – but only a bonafide union can bargain collectively. The SCEA is not a union – no matter what Google pulls up.
It’s probably no coincidence that the states that ban unions for public employees are former slave-owning states.
“I find it improper that I would be supporting a union that did not have the same interests as as I….”
How do you feel about corporations and groups like the Chamber of Commerce spending billions on political interests that you might not agree with? Every time you spend a dollar on gasoline, a few cents goes toward lobbying against the public interest.
According to UN data the U.S. ranks 73rd in the world in income equality based on the GINI coefficient. We rank between those powerhouse progressive countries of Turkmenistan and Senagal. Most of the modern world including Japan, France and Germany rank far ahead of us on the list. The UK, is probably the closest western nation to us but is still about 20 slots higher than us. The gap between the wealthy and the poor and middle class has gradually widened since 1967 and has generally widened at a faster pace during Republican administrations.
As long as we have a media that tries to balance the scales by falsely claiming the right and the left in this country are equally irresponsible we will continue to see most of America suffering through wage stagnation while a tiny fraction of the population grows fabulously wealthy.
This can only change if the voters are properly informed and organized. But as long as the media shills continue to equate the two parties as just two sides of the same coin, when in fact they are not, we will continue down this path toward a full-blown plutocracy.
It’s a sad thing to watch this great nation being taken over by the gilded class who has no regard for either the safey or economic well-being of most hard-working Americans. But it’s not too late. Americans have shown a resiliency in the past to troubling events. But it generally takes a wake-up call. This diabolical slow boiling of the frog has rendered most of the working class ignorant of what is occurring. Let’s hope that Americans wake up so that wealth can be shared in a responsible manner rather than hoarded by the few. It’s a fight that the folks in Wisconsin are waging. And it’s a fight well worth waging.
Economists define “unions” as an organization that through collective bargaining between workers and management/business owners establishes an agreed upon price of labor and supply of labor.
I think SCMA meets that definition of a union they set prices (though it is illegal for them to collude) and the fix the supply of physicians. Maybe guild is a more acceptable term.
I thought of a better way to put, simply, the problem with public-employee unions. This is not a new thought; it underlies all that I’ve said. It’s just that it’s so automatic with me that I didn’t set it out in words. So now I’ll do so:
A union is about gaining coercive advantage in an adversarial relationship. (If you doubt this, read some of the pro-union comments that make reference to need a union to FORCE someone to do something. Burl, in fact, actually used the word “force.” I’m not saying people are wrong to say that; I think they’re accurately portraying what a union is for.) You may regard this as necessary, given the assumption that without a union, the employee is at a power disadvantage with the employer. The assumption is that the employer can make the employee do things, but the employee can’t MAKE the employer do anything. So, under the strength-in-numbers concept, a union is formed to give the employees that power. But the assumption here is that this is an ADVERSARIAL relationship, and that coercive leverage is needed. With me?
OK — what I’m saying is that that is ENTIRELY inappropriate in the relationship between public employees and their employers, because their employers are the PEOPLE of the state, city, nation, what have you. (The bosses of these employees are merely agents, or employees, of the polis of the given community.) When you set up a public-employee union, you are setting up an organization that exists to have power in MAKING the polis do what the union wants it to do. It’s setting up a power that exists to gain advantage in an ADVERSARIAL relationship with the public.
That is entirely inappropriate. It’s the wrong kind of relationship, not at all the sort of relationship that should exist between the public and what we quaintly call public servants.
That’s what I mean with my own, quaint comments about SERVICE. I was implying the above. I hope that saying it more overtly explains my position better.
Public employee unions help foster a more effective means of fairly compensating employees who have earned the right to pay and benefits. The same cannot be said for the politicians who make the rules. They get elected on the basis of promises to reduce spending and taxes and that can result in a discreminatory scheme that unfairly works against labor. This in turn reduces the ability of the public sector to leverage better pay and working conditions for private companies who face less competitive pressure since workers have fewer options. The result is a downward spiral of wages in both the public and private sector. As profits soar as a result the income inequality between the haves and have-nots increases. Soon there will be nowhere for workers to go. In the end the middle-class is destroyed. Sadly we are now about 44 years into this transition to a plutocracy with momentum building all the time. The destruction of public sector unions is one more nail in the coffin of middle-class prosperity.
OK, I’m just being pedantic here, not argumentative (I was being argumentative everywhere else, so this is an exception). But words and concepts interest me, so…
I often hear people say what Bud just said, about union membership being a key to middle-class status.
But… just to be Percival Pedant here for a moment (which I realize is not a turn-on for the babes, but I can’t help it) … isn’t that sort of a contradiction in terms? I mean, doesn’t union membership preclude membership in the bourgeoisie, even the petit-bourgeoisie? I mean, isn’t social class more than incomes, even in America?
I’m trying to use Marxist terms here (as I tried to employ feminist concepts back here), and I’m not fluent in that system (or in feminism, hence the above parenthetical about the babes), so I may have these terms wrong…
You said: “Public employee unions help foster a more effective means of fairly compensating employees who have earned the right to pay and benefits.”
I know you know better. Unions support seniority. It would go against everything to promote based on merit. So they don’t. And that’s the problem.
Therefore, public unions are a classic example of two wrongs making a whopper of a wrong.
Proposing to overpay people to create some kind of middle-class utopia is not a sustainable plan over the long term. Union’s promote the status quo and even an erosion of productivity in many ways (while I do agree that they tend to improve safety). We require innovation and hard work to ensure a prosperous future for ourselves and our society. Stifling union work rules and other sorts of foot-dragging, however unintentional, have proven time and time again to be an impediment to growth and prosperity.
I will grant you that an extreme collapse in wealth to a small percentage of the population is also a very harmful thing and should be addressed.
I don’t think the term “public servant” really applies to garbage collectors and parking monitors. It applies to policy makers—people who get props for voluntarily being paid less, if anything, to make the political body better. They receive “magic beans” instead of making reams of dough. Not so for the rank-and-file, who are already the whipping boys and girls for pandering pols and angry taxpayers.
Teddy Kennedy was a “public servant.” Henry McMaster, who now gets 6 figures for a part-time gig, was a public servant. Laborers and office drones whose employer happens to be the government, not so much.
Mark, what you are correctly pointing out is that unions can and do go too far. They can stifle individual initiative and thwart hard work. But they don’t necessarily reward seniority. Or at least they shouldn’t.
Yet I believe unions serve such an important function as a countervailing force to draconian safety and compensation attitudes by both corporate elites and government power brokers that they are more of a force for good rather than an anchor preventing progress.
I’m trying to understand the difference between the Tea Party and the union workers protesting the government… Please try to describe one group in a way that doesn’t describe the other.
Motivated by self-interest? Check.
Feeling oppressed by the government? Check.
Any job where the worker is paid based on seniority instead of performance will result in the least efficient output. The only area where unions should be involved should be in workplace safety… and no worker should ever be forced to be a member of a union in order to be eligible to work.
Uh, the workers are asking for decent treatment on the *job*. The “government” is their employer…and they’re just asking for the same rights people who have a different employer have in civilized societies.
I’d say that’s a significant distinction.
Seniority in union shops is there to provide a counterweight against managers firing experienced, professional workers and hiring newbies in their place, or even outsourcing labor.
If a newbie can do the same job as an “experienced, professional worker”, then maybe that job doesn’t require experience or professionalism.
All the Wisconsin protesters should be forced to watch “Waiting For Superman” before being allowed to carry a sign.
The part in “Waiting for Superman” that cannot be defended is where a bureaucrat describes the 23 step process that is required to remove a bad teacher. That’s what unions get you.
Unless your idea of proper business is for corporations to destroy their own products in favor of momentary executive compensation.
What a great line. I think that IS, sadly, some people’s idea of proper business.
If these newly elected “responsible” governors really want to run local government on a businesslike basis, they’ll start firing American employees and outsourcing public services to India.
Another great line. I may have to steal it . . .
Managers just *think* the newbie/overseas person/robot can do the job the “same.” Having spent a great deal of time trying to deal with service people in Bangalore and robo-phone trees with only inapplicable choices, if Apple, who hires and retains quality, personable native English-speaking humans, ever starts selling automobiles, appliances, internet service, cell-phones (oh yeah–they do, but only fancy ones), cell-phone service, etc., I’m going all Apple, all the time.
I guess Doug would rather be operated on by interns than doctors, if it saves a buck.
Uh, no. You said that experienced professionals would be replaced by newbies. Since doctors truly are experienced, professional, and non-union that wouldn’t happen. But if we are talking about the guy installing a headlight in my car, a newbie is fine.
What union job is one where seniority results in better performance? Are the best teachers always the ones who are closest to retirement? That hasn’t been my experience after three kids go thru 13 grades each… And that was in nonunion schools.
Doug: “But if we are talking about the guy installing a headlight in my car, a newbie is fine.”
How about if he’s rebuilding your engine? Or repairing your wife’s brakes?
The point is that both Doug and Burl are correct. We need the appropriate level of competence. I would argue that over time the free market will do the better job providing appropriate and relevant knowledge.
This is the one argument that has me favoring seniority in government; because there is no alternative competitive entity. But I do believe with some positions such as teachers
this simple logic breaks down.
Sorry for the post mess, dog jumped on my arm and fired off the phone.
“How about if he’s rebuilding your engine? Or repairing your wife’s brakes?”
Are those union jobs? I don’t think so.
Are the engineers who design the brakes unionized? Probably not. Because that is a job that requires skill and experience.
I’m waiting for someone to provide a union job where seniority is more important than ability to perform the job.
My best personal experience with unions was when I was consulting with the US Postal Service. In Minneapolis, they had computer programmers who were members of the postal employees union. When they weren’t taken their twice daily bargained smoke breaks or refusing to apply fixes to the programs that would take seconds to do but were not in the specific work orders, they would also purposefully put bugs in the program in order to be paid overtime to fix them. These were all employees with more than 10 years “experience”. I did the same work four of them were doing in one quarter of the time…
Unions are just about controlling dues and pensions. They enforce a mentality of laziness and have a long history of utilizing violence to get their way.
Doug, I wasn’t talking about union vs. non-union there. I was responding to your saying “a newbie is fine,” which is a separate subject.
I was thinking more of the conversation we have so often about public officeholders — how you want them ALL to be newbies, and don’t believe that experience in public life is valuable. Whereas I disagree…
How many years experience does it take to understand how to be a state legislator? If it takes more than six months to learn a part time job, then maybe we’re electing the wrong people (oh, yeah, we are).
You try to balance the conflicting view that our state government is broken but the people who have been running it for decades have the experience we need to make it work. The career politicians ARE the reason the system is broken.
If you want your government services run like a business, then outsource it all to India.
Installing brake systems IS a union job a lot of places–like automotive factories. I guess I’d rather have the senior guy install it.