Monday, February 28, 2011

Is Collective Bargaining A Right?

Among all the things that bother me about all these protest going on right now, starting in Wisconsin, is the term “collective bargaining rights”.  I just don’t see the ability to bargain as a right. Free speech, a free press, no discrimination in voting, and others outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are what I’d call rights. 

I think a better term would be “collective bargaining privileges”.  When you boil it down, that is what it is, a privilege, granted by the taxpayer and government. There is nothing in the US Constitution that grants you the right to a job or to collective bargain. It is true there are laws on the books that protect folks and organizations that are unionized, but these laws do not grant rights.

 At the state, and to a lesser extent, and federal level this privilege has been abused. Whenever a group can hold a government hostage in an attempt to get more of the taxpayer’s money that would qualify as abuse in my book.  FDR had it right when he said, “The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for…officials…to bind the employer…The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives…  In other words, you work for the taxpayer, not General Motors or US Steel.

For far too long, the government worker has been feeding at the taxpayer trough and it is high time we pull them out. When you are getting a retirement that is pretty robust at taxpayer expense without contributing (or contributing very little) to that fund, then it is time you started to pull a little of your own weight. When you are paying far less than what the average private sector worker pays for a Health Care plan, then it is time to start pulling even more of your own weight. You are getting these benefits from the taxpayer, and many taxpayers have said “Enough!”.

It should be a privilege to work for a state or federal government as with any job.  You are hired at the discretion of your employer and if you are not doing your job to your employers expectations, then you are no longer an employee. You are a public servant, working on the taxpayer dime and the taxpayer is your employer. Yes, what you do is important. Teachers help mold the mind of our youth (A subject for another day). The IRS agent helps get the dollars owed to the government, and other office workers keep their respective governments running. Working for a state or the federal government is not a right.  Because I pay your salary you work for me, at my convenience.  If I feel you are earning too much, being a burden on the government’s budget, then you should take a pay cut in some form. Most likely, I’ll want you to contribute more for the benefits that you receive.

Is it too much to ask that you do your part? Is it too much to ask that you also sacrifice like many others in the private sector have had to sacrifice? While millions of jobs were lost in the private sector, the public sector grew. Benefits became even better while millions lost health care when they were laid off. Your retirement plan remained strong and “solvent” while millions have lost half or more of their retirement saving account value during the recent economic downturn. And you have the gall to ask that things don’t change or even get better while unemployment remains above 9% and underemployment is over 18%?

Private sector unions had their day. There was a time when workers were abused and safety was of little concern to the owner. The only thing that mattered was profit. If a few lives were lost or limbs torn off, that is tragic, but how much did we make today was the operating mode a long time back.  The unions ended that abuse. The unions brought about better wages, health care benefits, and probably most important, they brought about safer working conditions. And this impacted workers whether unionized or not. If an employer didn’t want the union, he had to pay as well as the union or run the risk of violent strikes or even losing employees to the unionized shops. Those days are long gone. There are so many laws, rules, and regulations in place at both the state and federal level, unions are really not needed any longer (unless you are a democrat).

The public sector unions were never needed in the first place. Maybe wages weren’t all that great ‘back then’, and maybe there were some safety issues that needed to be addressed. Both were addressed as private sector unions gained strength in the 20’s – 50’s. As the unions began to demand and receive better pay and safer conditions, companion laws, rules, and regulations were passed at the state and federal levels that covered the rest who were not unionized.  But there was another big difference between the private and public sector, there was a profit motive. In the private sector the unions were after a part of the profits they felt they deserved.  The workers in the private sector had a point. It was their labor that helped bring in the big profits for the owners.  In the public sector, there is not a profit motive because public sector employees do not generate a profit.  An efficient government worker (oxymoron?) does not make it cheaper to produce a widget or a thingamabob.  There might even be an argument the public employee might actually be a burden on the government they work for. Many states and municipalities have contracted out several services that used to be part of a city’s or state’s government. Think trash collection. This used to be a service that was provided by the government (at a fee of course). But they soon discovered it was cheaper to contract out trash collection.

Maybe I’m wrong and there was some sort of SCOTUS decision that I am not aware of that made collective bargaining a right. I have a feeling that somehow this became a right just because enough people said it was a right, like health care and the right to vote in Presidential elections. If so, please correct me.

On a final note, the other day I was asked by an acquaintance about my medical and retirement plans. For full discloser, I am retired military with 27.5 years of activity duty and did not contribute to my retirement plan, received what was essentially free health care, and had an inexpensive term life insurance program that covered my family in the event of my death ranging from dying on the battlefield to suicide. My friend asked me to explain why I thought I deserved those kinds of benefits while others in the public sector do not. I tried to make it simple for him. If someone puts their life on the line to protect others, we need to do whatever is possible to compensate them for that. I put cops and fire-fighters in the same category (almost). Teachers, the training technician at a federal agency, the IRS bean counter, and other state and federal office workers don’t go to work each day with the knowledge that it could be their last day because of some event that could happen while on the job.

During the course of my career I deployed seven times. Several times we came under fire.  During Desert Shield (1991) a SCUD missile almost landed in the camp that housed most of the personnel.  While traveling through Bosnia, our bus was fired upon (no hits though). Several times while in Iraq the helicopter I was flying in was fired at and rockets were a near daily occurrence. Many times people I knew did not come back. They were killed while doing their job. That kind of thing just does not happen to at “the office”. Yes, I know, some random act of violence can happen while on your way to work, but the state/federal office worker is not targeted because he/she is an office worker. Military personnel are targets, as well as cops. Because of the inherent danger of just doing the job, cops, Military personnel, and firefighters deserve to be treated at a different level than most others.  I don’t feel the office worker deserves to have their benefits be better than what you will generally find in the private sector or on par with those whose job it is to go into danger as a routine.

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