Saturday, March 5, 2011

More On Walker's Union Busting

Alright.  So here's another reason that I strongly oppose Governor Scott Walker's anti-Union "Budget Repair Bill" in Wisconsin.

The poor targeting of state employees.

To start with, let's stick to the assumption that collective bargaining unit-represented state employees really are the problem.  Let's look at the two glaring exceptions to the now collective bargaining except for wages proposal.  Police and firefighters.  Who happen to be the highest paid Union-represented public employees.  If the bill is really about the budget, these should be the first employees targeted.  Yes, their jobs are essential to the basic operations of a state or local government, even by the most Libertarian standards.  Yes, their jobs are incredibly dangerous (some of them).  In fact, many police and firefighters put their lives on the line, literally, every day, in order to ensure the security of ours.  This post does not mean I do not appreciate or support those efforts.  But let's look at the numbers.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, detective, and firefighter base pay ranges in the high 50's to high 70's, without longevity adjustments.  This is not counting benefits.  Teachers, on the other hand, with the exception of higher education, range in the mid 30's.  Also, benefits, understandably, are considerably more expensive for police and firefighters.  In fact, many police and fire fighters are eligible for retirement after 20 years of service.  Yes, that's right.  For a 21 year old entering the field, that means that they are eligible for retirement at age 41.  Fair enough, given the physically strenuous nature of their jobs.  Unlike most non-union, private sector jobs, however, which are fixed contribution plans, these retirement plans are generally fixed benefit plans.  Which means that these employees, regardless of length of service, amount contributed by them, their Union, or their employer, will receive a fixed monthly amount for the remainder of their lives.  Regardless of how long that may be.  How much is this fixed amount?  Often 50% of their pay as of retirement.  Yes, that is correct.  A 41 year old police or firefighter can be making $60,000+ a year (ignoring the raises they get for longevity, so more likely in the $80,000 range), retire, never work another day again, and make $30,000 a year (again, more likely $40,000+) until they die at the ripe old age of 112.  Moreover, union employees are almost universally eligible for overtime pay.  Teachers tend to work on annual salaries (not eligible for overtime), and with the exception of special circumstances (special events, weather or illness related issues), teachers, public transit workers, administrative workers, etc. should not be regularly getting overtime, unless it is due to poor management.  Police and firefighters, on the other hand, are eligible for overtime pay, and, due to the nature of their jobs, can reasonably be expected to receive that overtime.  If this bill is really about repairing the budget, and not about sticking it to unions, why are the most costly union workers being left untouched?

Let's now look at teachers.  No, their jobs are not particularly dangerous.  They also are not particularly rewarding from an economic standpoint.  Low incomes, little career advancement opportunity, etc.  Many people argue that paying teachers what we do, when they only work 9 months a year, is unreasonable.  How many companies do you know of that will hire a grown adult for seasonal employment at a reasonable wage?  Many teachers would be more than willing to work 12 years, if the work were available.  It is a decision of the school boards (mind you, school boards controlled by their employers) to run a 9-month school system.  Through no fault of their own, teachers have been restricted to doing their chosen work (except for a few offered pennies to instruct summer school classes) 9 months a year.  Unlike bears, teachers do not hibernate.  Especially during the summer.  Just because we have determined that vacationing, camp, and little league are more important uses of the nice summer weather than education our children does not mean teachers stop paying rent, eating, or paying off their student loans.  Moreover, if the argument behind excluding firefighters and police is that they fulfill an essential government function, after police and fire protection, I believe even most hardcore Libertarians would agree that at least a minimal public education is an essential government function.

My guess, were you to ask Walker supporters these tough questions, would be that they would argue that the danger of inflaming the police and firefighters unions is higher than that in inflaming teachers and other public employee unions.  My response would be twofold.  First of all, from an immediate safety standpoint, that may be true.  From a long-term economic effect standpoint, this is utterly false.  One year, or even one semester, without public schools could set Wisconsin's education system, and economy, back for years.  Moreover, the economic effect of having hundreds of thousands of children at home without school to go to for a semester or a year would be huge.  Second, this argument is all the more reason that police and firefighter unions should at least be considered eligible to have collective bargaining rights stricken.  Without a union, if police and firefighters were upset with their working conditions, what are the chances of a work stoppage that actually affected operations of their departments?  Yes, most union contracts include no-strike clauses, and I would wager that labor stoppages by public employees are illegal in the state of Wisconsin.  This has not, however, stopped Unions before.  When contracts expire, the no-strike clauses go with them.  Given the physical, mental, and training requirements for police and firefighters, the prospects of firing any unionized, striking employees before a new CBA was negotiated are slim to none (that is typically the threat employers use to prevent work stoppages during CBA negotiation lapses).  Moreover, the law against public employee strikes has proven ineffective in the state of Wisconsin before.  How many times have Teachers Assistants and other UW System employees gone on strike, and not been punished by either the University or the State?  I tend to think that a strike of police and firefighters is a highly, highly unlikely scenario.  If, however, even the threat of this is a factor in their exclusion from the "budgetary microscope," the reality needs to be re-evaluated.

Now, let's stop taking for granted that Unions are the problem here.  Let's question that basic assumption of Walker's bills.  Yes, there are non-teacher, non-police, and non-firefighting union employees working for the State of Wisconsin, and its local and municipal governments.  But there are countless more non-Union employees.  From a Libertarian perspective, and from the perspective traditionally flaunted by Republicans, big government is a problem.  This is supported by simple business management and economic knowledge as well.  A 3% pay cut for all employees in the state will not have the same long term benefits as a 3% cut to the number of employees.  It's just that simple.  Take a department.  We'll call it Local School District X.  When we cut the pay, the pension contributions, or the health insurance requirements for all 100 employees of School District X by, say $300, we have saved $30,000.  The savings are only $30,000.  We still have to pay insurance, licensing, basic benefits, etc. for all 100 employees.  Next year, we will likely give all employees a cost of living increase of 2.5%, plus some performance based increases, etc.  If, on the other hand, we realize that there are 2 employees whose only job is to photocopy homework assignments for teachers, and we can eliminate one of those positions, we can save $30,000 in pay.  We can also save 33% of that, or about another $10,000, in benefits.  This is a conservative estimate, as it is the standard used in the more efficient, less worker friendly private sector.  We can also save on a phone line, office supplies, physical plant and maintenance costs for one office.  Next year, we will continue to see the savings, as we are not paying this employee, or giving them performance or inflation based raises.  We have also actually increased the efficiency of Local School District X, and forced them to work with 99 employees, rather than 100.  These employees all still make the same amount of money as they were before, and generally their morale will be only slightly less than what it was before.

The reality of it is that the cost of running our government is not mostly due to teachers, firefighters, police officers, or even bus drivers.  The cost is mostly due to a bloated bureaucracy.  Moreover, an even larger majority of what most Republicans, Libertarians and fiscal conservatives would consider wasteful government spending comes from this bureaucracy and the non-transparent financial situation it creates.  It does not come from overpaying people in admittedly needed, typically unionized, public service positions.  It comes from paying people (even if it is less than their organized counterparts) to do things that either don't need to be done, or don't need to be done by the government.

Having worked with financial and personnel decisions while on the UW Campus, I've seen first hand what positions are "classified" (i.e. bargaining unit) and "unclassified."  From janitors to TAs, to research assistants, classified positions all due things clearly essential to the operation of the University.  Unclassified staff do such things as photocopy, answer phones, schedule meetings for other people, etc.  Often these people's workloads could easily be increased through more efficient operation.  Other unclassified staff include administrators.  How many deans, assistant principles, etc. does one school or University need?  If anything, because the positions must generally go through both Union and employer approvals, bargaining unit positions are more carefully vetted than their non-union equivalents.  Sure, there is fat that could be trimmed from Union positions as well.  But "big government" (which the Republicans stand up against in campaigns, but rarely in office) is not really a problem of union employees doing the dirty work (whether it's driving a bus, putting out fires, patrolling the streets, cleaning a toilet, or teaching a class).  It's a problem of the paper pushers (some of whom are covered by CBAs, but many of whom are not).  In fact, even when pay and benefits are being compared between public and private sectors, the only employees who it can accurately be compared for tend to be non-union, or at least not part of the four big unionized areas which seem to receive the most media attention (police, firefighters, teachers, and public transit).  Police officers may make more than the average private sector employee with a comparable (often high school or Associates degree) education.  Do they make more than someone professionally trained in criminal investigation, physical fitness, first aid and lifesaving, dangerous and defensive driving, and firearms safety and usage?  Is there a comparable profession which requires the extensive, although perhaps not University-provided, training that police officers go through?  Or which requires one to put their life on the line, entering unknown and potentially dangerous situations as a daily routine?  In fact, many police officers, military members, fire fighters, etc.  can find jobs in the private sector.  And if these jobs involve the same risk that their old professions did (think private military companies, etc.) they are often much better compensated than they were as public employees.

Public sector teachers may make more than their private sector equivalents.  Are the jobs really comparable?  Can a public school say, "no, this person is not entering with high enough test scores, we don't want them?"  By taking every student in a district, are public school teachers given a pass on the expectation that their students do well at the end of the day?  Can a public school refuse to take more students simply because the average class size has risen above 15?  Can a public school expel a child whose behavior makes them a distraction, or even a threat, to the other students, themselves, or their teachers?  Do public schools do extensive background checks on their students and their families, providing some measure of safety and security for their teachers?

Do city bus drivers make more than cab drivers?

The four most-attacked public service professions do jobs that we cannot possibly compare to any private sector equivalent.  So comparing their compensation is also unreasonable.

The bottom line is this.  The problem with the state budget in Wisconsin (and everywhere else) is not union wages.  It is an inflated government bureaucracy.  It is a bureaucracy that pays people to "regulate," "observe" and evaluate every minute aspect of people's business and personal lives.  It is a bureaucracy that has more people sitting behind desks pushing paper than actually out interacting with the public they are paid to serve.  It is a bureaucracy which, partly due to unions, and partly due to the nature of politics, tends to be eager to add new functions and departments, but rarely evaluates if those departments are still needed, running efficiently, or worth the money spent on them.  It is a bureaucracy which uses the prior year's budget as a starting point, and builds (almost always up) off of that for each department.  The solution is not to limit wages and benefits of all state employees, union or not.  It is to get rid of some state employees entirely, mainly the ones that provide little or no tangible benefits to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.

Let's just briefly point out one example of exactly the kind of thing which causes government budget problems.  Conveniently, this is a proposal of the very same Governor who is "repairing" the state budget.  In fact, this proposal was worked into the very same budget "repair" bill.  Any guesses?  Yes, that's right.  The proposal to separate UW-Madison from the UW System.  I haven't read the details of this.  Even if we give Walker the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he put this on paper in a way that would remain budget neutral, long term, that's not going to happen.  The reason that government agencies (including colleges and universities) that serve similar purposes are often consolidated is because of a duplication of services.  And the idea of "shared services."  For instance, state fleet vehicles.  Yes, the system and UW-Madison will probably need the same number of vehicles, regardless of whether they are one system or two.  On the other hand, insurance rates are likely to go up when the risk pool gets split in two.  The people who account for the location, condition, and maintenance of these vehicles will now be working for two different employers.  Which most likely means that the UW System will keep their current employees and Madison will hire more.  The regents who oversee the system will all still be in place, compensation, travel reimbursements, support staff in all.  A new board of regents will also need to be added to oversee Madison's operations.  Likely, somebody will need to step back and look at the bigger higher education picture in the state of Wisconsin.  These studies and evaluations will have to be done by some statewide body, whether an actual department, or a legislature committee (complete with staffers, of course).  The bottom line, this proposal does anything but repair the Wisconsin state budget.  Notice I have not touched on the merits of the idea itself.

But while Walker is proposing limiting the rights of the employees who few, if any, of even the most conservative or Libertarian Wisconsinites would argue are not needed, he is asking the legislature to turn the page and approve a split in a statewide system that would create many more taxpayer-paid jobs, and create countless duplications of service.  My guess, however, is that as long as we can keep the number of TAs, PAs, custodians, campus bus drivers, campus security guards, and other unionized employees the same, Walker's okay with that.

Walker has gotten national media attention with his plan to "fix" Wisconsin's budget.  Now, if only he would focus on fixing the budget problem that Republicans claim to see (i.e. big government) instead of expanding the government and paying the most essential state workers less, and removing their rights to collective bargaining, he might be able to set a positive example for the rest of the country.

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