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...