Friday, February 18, 2011


The Cheese Stands Alone

Fresh off a glorious Super Bowl victory, the state of Wisconsin is apparently looking at rescinding collective bargaining rights for college and university faculty and professional staff. (At this point, only the Democrats’ hiding ability seems to be stopping it. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere...) For blue-collar workers, as I understand it, it’s looking at restricting the range of collective bargaining to base wages; benefits, working conditions, workloads, and procedures would be off the table.

The move is being presented as budget-driven. The state is facing a serious deficit, and it’s easier to cut labor costs when you don’t have a union. But the real motive is pretty clearly ideological. You don’t need to go nuclear to balance the budget.

Unions can be a pain in the ass, but they can also enable predictability and stability across a large organization (or group of organizations). As painful as contract negotiations can be, they at least cover a boatload of people in one shot; the alternative -- negotiating each contract individually -- can be horribly time-consuming and prone to anomalies. When a union has thoughtful leadership, as opposed to firebrand true believer types, it can be a valuable partner in problem-solving. Having worked with unions in different states, I can attest that a union with smart leadership can actually save a lot of time and effort. (Of course, I can also attest that the wrong leadership will substitute heat for light.)

For my part, I’d far rather work with a unionized faculty than with a tenured one. (As it is, I work with both.) Unions work by the logic of reciprocity, as encoded in contracts. Contract law is well-established. Going to the trouble of establishing procedures upfront, as painful as it can be, can save all kinds of legal trouble later. For that matter, collectively negotiated salary or benefit cuts are less damaging to morale than cuts made on a case-by-case basis. It’s one thing to take one for the team; it’s something else to take a deeper cut so somebody else’s favorite can go unscathed.

The kernel of truth in the attack on unions is that as contracts mature, there’s a tendency for them to try to micromanage from below. Rules like “no staff meetings on Mondays” get put in there because it’s someone’s hobbyhorse and a deadline is approaching; before you know it, you’re stuck with it. Every so often, it’s important to blow out the plaque so actual work can get done. Managers need to be able to manage without being subjected to incessant hostile surveillance and a flurry of frivolous grievances. But what Wisconsin is doing amounts to firing a bazooka at a mosquito. Houses tend to fall when you do that sort of thing.

If Wisconsin were actually primarily concerned with finances, rather than scoring ideological points, it could bring those issues to the table. Certainly, there are times when that has to happen. That’s particularly true with health insurance costs, which continue to grow beyond any reasonable measure, and which are devastating in any labor-intensive enterprise. I don’t disagree with the idea that employees should kick in something for health insurance; I just think the way to get there is to negotiate it. (For what it’s worth, I pay a larger percentage of my salary for my pension and health insurance than the folks in Wisconsin would pay after the governor’s proposal. Some sense of scale in the discussion would be welcome.)

Over the long term, I’m convinced that employer-provided health insurance and pensions are simply unsustainable. The combined cost escalation is such that no-win dilemmas will continue to proliferate until something just breaks. Fighting site-by-site just obscures the larger problem and the obvious larger solution, which is single-payer. Attacking the very movement most likely to get us to the obvious solution is self-defeating. Of course, it’s clear that the governor of Wisconsin knows that, as does the Republican majority in the legislature. From their perspective, the obvious solution is out of the question, so attacking unions is a win-win. That’s why, despite the frustrations I deal with on a daily basis, I have to go with the unions on this one.

Here’s hoping the Democrats find their spines before the troopers find the Democrats...

The Cheese has friends. Ohio, too, is looking rescind bargaining rights not only for higher ed faculty, but also K-12, police, fire, etc. Essentially any public employee.
Michigan is straying down a similar path.

Dean Dad - would you say it is accurate that strong, organized (unionized) faculty can be better advocates for public higher education than nonunionized (and so politically weaker) faculty?
Just as an FYI, according to this, the budget shortfall was caused by the governor:
The real losers in WI are the kids who are being denied education and free lunches.
As a question of a 'sense of scale' what is your salary compared to the average worker in WI who is facing this problem?
Thanks, Dean Dad, for writing a thoughtful post on this issue. In fact, collectively, the unions representing state workers had already made apx. $100 million in offered concessions to the state before this bill was introduced. The state declined to negotiate. This bill is clearly idealogically motivated, as you point out, and we will continue to protest this blatant attack on workers' rights. Personally, I'd happily pay higher health insurance premiums, higher taxes, etc., as long as I knew that everyone (and every business) in the state was making a similar contribution to ensure our long-term security.
Let's face facts - this is an attempt to destroy unions, as opposed to balancing a budget. If it was about balancing a budget, the governor could have demanded salary, health insurance and pension concessions in exchange for no layoffs or furloughs.

Yes, unions sometimes encourage public cynicism by obstructing efforts to get rid of bad teachers or opposing merit pay/advancement, but that doesn't mean that they should be simply abolished. Simple employee rights exist today primarily because of public employee unions.

Should this legislation be enacted, I expect that you will see a flight of the most-qualified teachers from Wisconsin, and an attendant overall decline in teacher quality. The state may have to go so far as encouraging good teachers from adjacent states to commute via high speed rail... oh, wait... never mind.
I've worked in two K-12 school systems over the last 30 years. One was union; one was nonunion.

In union even if you had a less than fair principal, the contract protected you from his/her choosing favorites and picking on non-favorite teachers. He/she was forced to be fair and equitable in all areas of management.

In nonunion, an unfair principal could pick at some teacher who was hired by the last group in power and get rid of him/her.

I think a strong, organized union contract provides a reliable infrastructure for every employee.
The problem, as far as I can see it, is really a political one.
If unions stuck to labor issues such as collective bargaining, this would be a traditional labor versus management showdown.
However, unions are massive lobbying and political organizations; the overwhelming majority of that political activity went to the party that lost the elections in Wisconsin. Now, the political party that won has declared war on a political enemy. Labor issues have been completely swamped by politics.
The solution is to get unions out of the politicking game. I switched State jobs (and unions) a year and a half ago. The thing that I hated the most about the old union was that they took money from my paycheck and gave it to political candidates who I opposed, along with taking money from my paycheck for collective bargaining. The new union still takes money for collective bargaining, but allows me to decide if money from my paychecks should go to political candidates.
The Governor of Wisconsin also excluded the police and firefighters unions from his proposal. Happens to be those are the unions that endorsed him in the last elections. Ironic because that is the form of favoratism that unions are supposed to protect against.
Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Isn't the primary reason employers are willing to sit down with the union representatives at the negotiating table because the union has strong political ties to legislators through its political activities?
I'll second cherishthescientist - that was the link I was going to post in comments.

It's one thing to talk concessions with a union when there is a real budget shortfall. In Oregon, my state, the SEIU local that represents all 4-year higher ed classified workers negotiated two years of furlough days on a sliding scale.

Of course, unlike Wisconsin, our budget shortfall is a lot more genuine. In the case of the Cheese State, it appears to be a phony crisis, and that removes the thin veneer of economic legitimacy.
I live in Wisconsin so I'm seeing what is going on everyday. I'm not usually prounion outright, but what the gov. is doing is definitely going too far. Not even trying to negotiate just rips them apart, and that is what unions are there for!
Cody said:
The solution is to get unions out of the politicking game.

Sounds good, as long as we get corporations out too. What's sauce for the goose...
When collective bargaining rights are based in state law, and when state laws are made by (you guessed it) state politicians, and when state politicians try to jam a piece of union-busting crappola like this legislation down people's throats after manufacturing a crisis to make it seem necessary, and when they won't even DISCUSS it - just demand an immediate vote on it less than a week after it was introduced - well yeah, Cody, I can see exactly where unions should sit politely on the sidelines and stay out of politics.

Sorry, no. Sitting on the sidelines means hoping somebody else will step up and protect you. And it is quite clear that this is not going to happen for public employees.

By the way, if you have a right to be an agency fee payer (and I think in WI you do?), then you can demand back your % of money spent on political activities each year, no matter which union you are in. In my union, that amounts to about $30/year/member.
@Anonymous 12:37, you are correct. No union member in WI is forced to make political contributions.

Anonymous 5:43, one of my students said it right on her sign: "We want the best teachers, not the cheapest."

@DeanDad, thanks for the thoughtful post, and thanks to the majority of commenters for keeping it civil and intelligent. I'm feeling pretty demoralized today at the lack of civility in the discourse, especially online (of course). Please let us remember that even our opponents are people.
Cody says However, unions are massive lobbying and political organizations....

Nope, they don't even come close to what S-corporations (private companies) and publicly owned corporations spend on lobbying and campaign ads than unions do, and some do that with money invested by workers themselves.
"Here’s hoping the Democrats find their spines before the troopers find the Democrats..."

for once this is not the problem - the problem is the Republican majority is large enough to pass the legislation, whatever the Democrats do. So the only option available is to hide and deny the Republicans a quorum, and hope the public protests can do something. In this case the Democrats are displaying an admirably rigid spine. Bravo, I say.

There are twelve states trying to do something like this, and I don't doubt many more Republican state legislatures will enthusiastically bust the unions if they think they can get away with it. Next up, police action to break the heads of the peaceful union protesters, as seen in Bahrain. A democracy, if we can keep it..
There are apparently two budget issues. The first is a fairly small ~140 million hole in the budget that expires June 30. (could be July, but what the hell). This hole was dug by the Governor's tax givaways earlier this year, however, it allows him to claim financial emergency.

The second is a larger ~3 billion hole in the next two year budget, however, the former legislature and governor dug out of a similar hole two years ago without this sepiku nonsense.

Wisconsin needs a recall petition NOW
Where I live way up north, the new Tea Party governor and legislature are introducting right-to-work legislation that would go a good way toward killing our faculty union.

We are blamed for budget problems though our wages have been frozen for a couple of years and will be for two more, our pay-in to health insurance has risen, and our contribution to our pension fund is also going up.

Robert Reich has a good piece about overall Republican strategy, a part of which is an attack on public employees.
Sigh. Yes, of course the solution for unions is to get them out of the politicking game. Then we can follow that up by getting those pesky "people," who also benefit from labor laws, out of the politicking game. You could just have a tiny group make all the laws, and then "people" could stick to negotiating contracts with their employers, according to the terms dictated by those laws. Heck, if you're active enough, you could even pass a law making it allowable to own a person outright, such that their ability to negotiate was constrained by law to the point where it no longer existed.

That is, of course, the desired conservative state, stated over and over and over.

Conservatives have a problem with unions because conservatives have a problem with people living free and prosperous lives. That is the core of their complaint, their ongoing hatred of the fact that they are forced to live in a free country with widespread middle class prosperity. They are, as always, welcome to relocate to one of their models, be it Haiti, Somalia, or Iran.
Two points, one already made by a couple of commenters. Much of the budget hole is a consequence of significant tax cuts proposed by the governor and passed by the legislature.

And, the legislation ends collective bargaining rights for *most*, but not *all* public employees, retaining them for protective service workers (police officers, fire fighters, the Wisconsin state police, ambulance drivers and attandants...). So there's some overt politicking going on in the legislative proposal as well.
Minor points. Although four small locals endorsed Walker, most of the police and fire unions endorsed his opponent. So police and fire were not left out of the budget repair legislation as "payback" as some have said, he didn't owe them anything anyway.

Wisconsin's problem is low growth, not enough jobs, and so not enough revenue. The "tax cuts" everyone complains of should stimulate growth, jobs and revenue—at least, every claims that happens when the federal tax is cut.

The larger problem, the reason for taking everything but wages off the collective bargaining table, is that the last contract took 18 months to negotiate, and that was when sympathetic Dems were on both sides of the table! That's just not tolerable when the state is looking down the barrel of a $3 billion gun.

The legislation leaves the union in place. It only tries to level the playing field a bit.

My question: how is running away to prevent a quorum an expression of democracy? It was democracy when the voters went to the polls in November. Walker is only following through on his promises to the voters. Isn't that what he's supposed to do?

Fundamentally, FDR was right about unions for public workers.
Tell us, Edmund, did the current Republican majority campaign on an overt pledge to bust unions?

If not (and I think most didn't) then any claim about this sudden and drastic proposal being "just part of democracy" doesn't fly.
The legislation leaves the union in place. It only tries to level the playing field a bit.
First of all, eliminating all meaningful collective bargaining hardly constitutes an effort to "level the playing field a bit." Second, for several categories (specifically the nurses and staff of the UW Hospitals and Clinics), the bill DOES completely eliminate the union. Incidentally, UWHC is technically private, so here Walker is eliminating private sector unions, whatever he claims to be doing.
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