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Sunday, September 30, 2012

The usual suspects, part 4

The last post showed how private sector labor unions achieved success, not through direct confrontation with management, but through politics.  The ability to influence politicians was critical for labor to get necessary legislation and government support to fight management on more equitable terms.  There is nothing wrong with this, as this is how all special interest groups, attempt to create favorable conditions for themselves.

Once the fights over issues like work hours, overtime, workplace safety, and collective bargaining were won after many years of struggle and sacrifice, unions had already internalized the idea that they had won their battles against management through force of will and combativeness.  These values became part of the self-image of private sector unions, and as a result, an adversarial attitude toward management became normal, even with employers who had already accepted unionization and viewed employees as valuable resources.

This adversarial attitude toward management caused private sector unions to portray any conflict with management as a grand struggle for workers' rights, even if it is over less lofty issues like pay, benefits, or job security.  For hardcore unionists, this attitude is perfectly logical.  If one views labor as the source of all value in the private sector, then any negotiation is over how much labor allows management, as representatives of owners or shareholders, to share in the fruits of the workers' labor. This means that any benefit extracted from management is an earned benefit, and any attempt to take away an existing benefit is a form of theft.

The Jobs Bank that GM created to pay laid-off workers would only be proposed by a union that believed that, once given, a job at GM was a permanent earned benefit.  This benefit could never be taken away, regardless of how many vehicles GM sold or how much money it earned.  While the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) believed it had the right as employers to dictate how teachers were evaluated, rehired after layoffs, or awarded for merit, the teachers' union had a different philosophy.  CPS's demands encroached on earned benefits and were worth striking over.  This was all in a city where 80% of its eighth-grade student are not proficient in math and reading and one of the most union-friendly in America.

So etched in the DNA of public sector unions are both a dependence on politics (and politicians) for power and a militancy about benefits.  Public sector employee unions arrived late on the scene but inherited these tendencies.  The next post will discuss how these tendencies affect the public pension crisis.

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