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Friday, April 8, 2011

Now Add More Mr. Nice Guy - How To Oppose Public Sector Unions Without Opposing Public Sector Workers

by Matthew Knee

Yesterday was a good day for the reformers. Prosser seems to have won, and Tuesday’s election holds promising signs for the recalls. However, the fight in Wisconsin is far from over, and is likely to repeat itself in other states. While all professional campaign messages should be properly polled or focus-grouped, this post will examine some existing evidence for how best to approach public sector union reform. Going forward, reformers must learn to counter the psychological advantages that large, sympathetic special interest groups such as professional public sector unions have in shaping public opinion. Like many reformers such as the National Right To Work Committee and Chris Christie, it is important to support the workers while opposing the unions. Additionally, it is important to properly gauge the local political climate and calibrate aggressiveness accordingly.

While Americans pay lip service to fiscal conservatism in theory, they are reluctant to be the “bad guy” when it comes to actual cuts. Liberal policies tend to benefit sympathetic constituencies, and the left knows how to take advantage of this good will, not only by highlighting the plight of their underdog beneficiaries, but by defining their opponents as members of unsympathetic groups such as "the rich" or "big business."

Identification, affinity, and disaffinity are important aspects of public opinion. One of the better theories of partisanship is that individuals identify with the party whose members they identify with. People are Democrats or Republicans because they look at who belongs to each party and see themselves as Democrat or Republican kinds of people. People also have strong emotional associations with groups, especially those that they associate with themselves. Mentioning a group as a victim or beneficiary of a policy can prime these emotional responses or associate them with certain viewpoints.

While Americans generally hold mixed to mildly supportive views of public employee unions in general, they tend to hold unionized government professions such as policemen and teachers in very high regard. In a recent poll, Americans supported unionization of government employees in well-regarded, high-status professions such as firefighters, police officers, and teachers by a 2-1 or greater margin, but were about evenly divided on office workers and janitors. Practically, this is illogical - lower-skilled, commoditized labor is more suitable for unionization, and public safety employees are especially poorly-suited for unionization. The same series of polls showed that labor union leaders are regarded as not demonstrating much honesty and ethics (even lawyers fair better!), and another found that organized labor is about as trusted as big business. This suggests that people do not always make the distinction between the public service professionals most commonly associated with government workers and the union bosses that represent them, and thus public opinion on public sector unions tends to represent a confused mix of the two. Reformers must hammer home these distinctions if they are to garner public sympathy.

In hindsight, attacking collective bargaining was among the riskiest ways of counteracting the budgetary effects of powerful public sector unions. It polls much worse than many other reformist ideas and affinities, in part because it difficult to portray collective bargaining limitations as in the interests of the workers. One can argue that union bosses use their collective bargaining power to enact unjust work rules or unsustainable policies that can lead to layoffs and unfunded pensions in the long run, but true as this may be, it is not intuitive and raises questions of budget priorities. Thus, major limitations on collective bargaining might be out of reach in some states in which significant reforms are nevertheless achievable.

Instead (or, additionally), reformers may want to focus on policies that can be shown to enhance workers rights and uphold American values. This is not just because they sound better, but because such policies really do protect workers from being exploited by political machines that both take and spend their money without proper consent.

The power of public sector unions is built on a network of coercive laws and policies beyond collusive collective bargaining, many of which were also implemented in Wisconsin, though discussed less in the media. Reformers could focus on passing Right To Work laws ensuring individual government workers the right to choose not only to decline to join a union, but the right not to pay fees to workplace unions they refuse to join. Failing that, reformers could pass laws creating the right not to have money taken automatically from government workers' hard-earned paychecks and given to politicians and causes not of their choosing without their consent. Reformers should promote more democracy in the workplace, forcing union re-certification elections more regularly and ensuring a secret ballot to prevent intimidation of workers. Public sector union reform should carry the banners of freedom of association, of freedom of speech, of democracy, of freedom of choice, and of good governance. Reformers can win by giving workers more rights, not by taking them away.

Reformers should also fight for just and fair workplace rules, not those based on the power of the established over younger workers. Seniority works for the unions because it promotes solidarity rather than competition among union members, but seniority is neither fair to quality employees nor an effective way to encourage good work. Merit should play a large role in pay, promotion, and retention. For instance, good, dynamic young teachers must not be fired to protect incompetent, clock-punching lifers. Reformers should make examples of government employees, especially teachers, who are good at their jobs but get pink slipped due to a lack of seniority. Reformers should also find more “rubber rooms” and other collections of incompetent but unfireable tenured public employees to demonstrate who gets to keep their jobs instead.

The left portrays unions as the opponents and counterparts of big, evil corporations, which while false, fits the commonly-held but simplistic narrative of business and labor as naturally opposing forces. Unlike public service professionals, the reputations of businessmen, the rich, and big corporations are very weak. The left will portray reformers’ efforts as scapegoating teachers and other sympathetic professions while cutting taxes on the rich.

One solution is to only target public sector unions. Leave corporations out of the equation. Our state and local budget deficits largely stem from public sector unions, not private sector unions. Targeting only public sector unions creates a powerful case that this is about balancing budgets and reining in out of control government, rather than destroying an opposing set of interest groups. It also allows reformers to argue that public sector unions are especially problematic due to their collusive, rather than adversarial, relationship with many of those they negotiate with, and could dampen enthusiasm for retaliation among the nearly half of union members who work in the private sector.

We know from Wisconsin, however, that public sector unions will make the case that big corporations and the rich are behind their opposition anyway. Reformers in the most precarious of political positions might consider bundling systemic changes that solve the public sector union problem with some amount of pain for corporations and/or "the rich," so as to show that they are making everyone share in the sacrifices budget balancing requires. There is plenty of anti-market, winner-picking crony capitalism worth targeting. This could neutralize the left's emotional attacks with a powerful appeal to intuitive perceptions of fairness.

This is not to say that reformers should not stand strong or that collective bargaining is a third rail. It looks like the reformers in Wisconsin may yet prove that it is not, and unwillingness to spend political capital on important issues misses the point of good representative government. Nor am I saying that reformers should not raise awareness of shady union bosses or overly-generous labor agreements. However, it is important to connect with voters' emotions and identities in such a way that they know the reformers are the good guys.

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  1. Great piece. Excellent political strategy for framing the public union debate, particularly in blue and purple states.

  2. Wherever he appears, Governor Christie continues to push forward on that approach of praising the teachers who do well while simultaneously reserving his criticism for the NJEA and the union leaders.

    And he persists in putting that message out there, while the Democrats and their acolytes continue to press a contrary message. Having a channel on YouTube has literally become a necessity of modern politics!

    I worked on the staff of the legislature in Trenton for many, many years, and I can tell you that public sector unions, especially the NJEA literally owned the place, regardless of who was in charge.

    Of course, for the lion's share of the past 40 years or so, the General Assembly in the legislature has been completely controlled by Democrats, with a brief exception of a few years back during the 90s. And although it was "tied" once [20 - 20] for a short while, the State Senate has otherwise been in Democrat hands throughout.

    Pouring more and more money into the coffers of persistently failing schools has been a way of life for decades in New Jersey.

    Court-driven mandates have contributed considerably to the problem as well throughout that period. Their rulings have focused on state-mandated funding to be poured primarily into the inner-city areas over the years, and have thereby contributed heavily to statewide driving property taxes through the roof.

  3. And herein lies a certain conundrum. In supporting the union membership while countering the union leadership, we must ask, how is it that the unions are the bogeymen and yet, the workers who make up the union are the good guys? Is this not a false distinction? By doing this are we not simply continuing to look past the obvious fact that the workers seem to be fully behind the leadership whenever they employ their unsavory tactics used to accomplish their objectives? If we carry on as though the membership are simply the docile sheep who are passive followers of the evil leadership, we allow ourselves to become victims of one of the most pervasive manipulation tactics employed. This tactic is called, good cop – bad cop. By making the distinction between the membership and the leadership, are we not inadvertently allowing the membership (good cops) to avoid responsibility for the unsavory actions of the leadership (bad cops)?

    While the people have held public unions of policemen and firemen in high regard, I would submit that much of this is due to the fact that heretofore, the public has been largely ignorant of the exorbitant pensions, and the underhanded tactics used to fleece the public, as overtime is piled on prior to retirement in order to inappropriately enrich the pension recipients at the expense of the people. As the people become more aware of the games being played to separate them from their money, I believe they will soon be making a distinction between how much they like these people and how much they want to continue to enrich them to the detriment of everyone else. These workers are nice people, and they are doing a great job of providing for the health and life safety of the public, and they should be properly compensated and receive a level of respect that is commensurate with the fine work they do, but, lets maintain some level of sanity. Is it right that these people receive exorbitant salaries and pensions while the rest of us are forced to eat buckwheat cakes for the balance of our lives in order to support all of this? How about a little bit of parity?

    I believe terms like “collective bargaining” should be parsed and we should not continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated with such deceptive terminology. If the power of public sector unions is indeed built on a network of coercive laws and policies, why don’t we start calling it what it is and let both the unions and their membership defend their tactics. Can we simply describe things in sufficient detail to give people an accurate idea about what’s really going on behind the façade? How is it that we must develop strategies and tactics that obscure the truth in order to expose the truth?

    I believe we can reform the system by putting out clear facts and by making honest representations that regular folks can easily understand. We don’t need to over think all of this. What we now have is intolerable and unsustainable, and everyone understands that. If the union membership is isolated from the negative actions of the union leadership, we simply allow them to avoid any responsibility whatsoever for reform. What benefit does anyone derive from that? How about we stop trying to be Mr.Nice Guy and we now confront issues as honest and straight forward people who are simply at the end of our limits of toleration?

    In America, constituents are indeed responsible for the actions of their leaders. We do not live in a monarchic society. Lets all provide the union membership with every opportunity to defend the actions of their leaders as we hold them responsible. If they want to live by the leadership – let them also die (metaphorically speaking) by the leadership. Lets not isolate them from the negative consequences of their own actions and provide them with an out that would continue to allow them to avoid both criticism and responsibility. To do so will only further obscure the truth. Let the union membership bear the responsibility for their actions. And let the public know exactly what is going on and exactly who is behind it all.

  4. Excellent points, Matthew. But good luck on this one:

    "... but seniority is neither fair to quality employees nor an effective way to encourage good work. Merit should play a large role in pay, promotion, and retention."

    The very nature of a public employee union--where no profit motive is involved--often makes for management that couldn't care less about merit. For supervisors, it's all about not making any waves (so even the most egregiously imcompetent and/or lazy workers won't file grievances to impede the supervisors' entrance into the gravy train's cushier dining cars).

    Someone who wouldn't last a day in a private sector job can easily last 30 years in a comfortable public sector position and retire in comfort at 55.

  5. One point that LukeHandCool touches on is significant -- that there is no profit motive in a bureaucracy. But there are other motives at work that tend to work against reform that results in cost savings, including resistance at several levels because of entrenched interests. By no means is it just a rank-and-file level problem.

    For example, during a period of time I spent overseeing a detailed planning effort in a large state government bureaucracy (including leading a team of participating directors, managers and supervisors whose offices and employees were each going to be affected to a greater or lesser degree by the implementation of the plan) it became very clear to me that "getting into someone's ricebowl," as one friend used to jokingly put it, was certain to make you enemies.

    And in my experience, it nearly always resulted in some form of "back-channel" effort being undertaken to try to torpedo the planning effort.

    One of the major points of focus of that planning effort was merely to encourage thousands of businesses, who were required to annually file for licenses, to do so using electronic filing.

    One Director in the DMV had a team of keyboard folks who for years had the task of taking the filled-in license applications that were mailed to Trenton, and to keyboard that licensing information into the State system. That kept the team busy only during a few brief periods each year.

    For the rest of the year, this Director was able to "farm them out" or lend them from time to time, to others in the Department as similar situations might arise regarding licensure or similar keyboarding needs.

    He hated the plan, especially the idea of encouraging the electronic filing of the license applications, not only because it eliminated any justification he had for maintaining this large team of people for "his" work, but also because he thought it diminished his power within the organization. He would not be able to continue making other sections of DMV dependent on him.

    It didn't matter to him that there was a persistent error rate from the keyboarders, some of which would resurface at some point in problems for businesses that they had had no part in creating. Nor did it matter that there was no fiscal justification for the employment during large parts of the year, or that it would save the state money to implement the program. He fought it tooth and nail.

    I personally witnessed the same kind of fight from the DMV bureaucracy on an even larger scale, when the state undertook to allow people to renew their motor vehicle registrations "on-line." Several managers and directors in the DMV bureaucracy tried to fight it at every turn, and for similar unjustifiable reasons.

    Yet when the motor vehicle re-registration program was implemented using a private contractor, the after-service surveys indicated that the approval rate for the change was 99.6 percent!

  6. Excellent post! They win the first battle because we let them frame the debate with the terms: "Collective Bargaining Rights" is a perfect example and then we have to work twice as hard to win the war. We should re-frame the debate with proper terms: 1) Public unions are a derivative of soviet collectivist statism. 2) It is not bargaining if the other side (the tax payer is not at the table). 3) It is not a "right" and it diminishes the real rights guaranteed by our constitution by naming everything we "want" as a right. So let's all call it what it IS (in honor of this first battle in Wisconsin): Collectivist Badgering Fight! :-)

  7. A governemnt emplyee will be working with the people who run the union for the next 5, 10, or 40 years depending. Even if they strongly object to the union, unless they want to be a social pariah for that period of time, shut up and and even show up at union events. The support in the bargning units deppending on union, work place, etc is less, often much less than 100%.

    Many would like to be rid of the albatross.

  8. This is the same mistake as those who believe there are innocent civilians in war. No war has ever been won without killing enough civilians to halt the production of war. You will not stop the unions until there isn't enough members to make it worth the fight.