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Monday, October 1, 2012

The usual suspects, part 5

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2011 data, the rate of union membership in the private sector is 7.2 million workers, representing 6.9% of the private sector workforce.  Union membership in the public sector is 7.6 million members, representing 37.0% of the public sector workforce.   This 37% of public sector union membership is greater than the 35% all-time high of private sector union membership achieved in the mid-1950's.

The high level of public sector unionization is in addition to civil service systems that provides many job protections to public sector workers not available in the private sector.  So what accounts for this seeming  incongruity of the data?  Do public sector workers do more dangerous work, work longer hours, or have a more contentious relationship with management than private sector workers do?  The answer, of course, is no, so another explanation is necessary.

As was detailed in the prior post, public sector unions inherited the DNA of private sector unions.  They understand the importance of politics and politicians because that is where their power ultimately derives.  They also embrace the concept that benefits approved are benefits earned, and these benefits should never be given up without a fight.  However, these values are complicated by the different labor-management relationship in the public sector.

The most militant union member in the private sector knows that there is a limit to his demands.  If a business is driven into bankruptcy or liquidation, all previous agreements become subject to a court's discretion, and the court can diminish or eliminate benefits previously awarded.  The public sector unions have no concerns about a government entity ceasing to exist and municipal bankruptcy courts have so far protected promised benefits.  Public sector unions also have the unique ability to influence the choice of their ultimate bosses, politicians, through elections.  In the private sector, unions can not replace owners, and boards of directors choose CEO's of corporations.  Finally, the notion of a fair share of revenue that private sector unions can legitimately negotiate with management over does not exist in the public sector as their wages are paid with taxes.

This combination of private sector union values in conflict with public sector attributes makes for an interesting  battleground.  The battles in Wisconsin over the past 18 months show how ingrained the values of private sector unions are in public sector unions.  The elected government of Wisconsin fulfilled the promises they made to voters and acted within their legal authority to change the law in Wisconsin.  This is how politicians, as representatives of taxpayers, are supposed to act.  Public sector unions responded with a series of recalls, legal challenges, and mass protests.  The rhetoric used by public sector unions attempted to frame this conflict as a regression to a mythical dark time in the history of  public sector labor, rather than the governor and legislators doing what they thought was best for taxpayers, workers, and public school students.

The situation in Wisconsin brought to the surface the private sector tendencies of public sector unions by a clear and open challenge to their power and benefits.  The usual modus operandi is to influence politics behind the scenes in order to increase benefits whenever possible and fight any changes in benefits.  This has been a very effective strategy over the years and explains why union membership is so high in the public sector.

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