Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Public/Private Sector Unions - Some Comparisons

First, some statistics. Public sector union members have increased approximately from 11% to 36% over the past 30 years. Private sector union members have have decreased from approximately 33% to just 7% today. There are now more American workers in unions than in the private sector despite the fact that the private sector employs 5 times as many people.

This shift has created some tensions between the the public and private sector as I have often written on this site. The private sector is dominated by competition with performance pay being the norm. The public sector is a haven of security and stability. Many employees have life-time jobs and performance measures are rare. Public sector union workers are often better paid than the people they serve. Pay and benefits in the public sector have grown approximately twice as fast as the private sector.

Public sector unions have tremendous power with large memberships and fat wallets. The ANEA, the main teacher's union has an annual budget of over $300 million. On October, 2000, a weak Peoria Public School District #150 school board approved a 5 year teachers union contract that put the district $59 million in red in by January of 2006; red ink the district has never recovered. Andy Stern, the head of the SEIU was the most frequent guest of our new president in the first few months of his inauguration. His union donated member dues to the tune of $29 million in 2008 to get union sup[porters elected with President Obama being the chief recipient.

Not enough people saw the film by a liberal film director, "Waiting for Superman", calling Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT union as 'something of a foaming satanic beast' as described by a Variety reviewer. The film described the teachers union bosses as perpetuating a broken' system.

Some of the credits for this article come from the January 8th issue of The Economist which finished their article as follows:

"It would be a mistake to write off the public-sector unions. They are masters of diverting attention from strategic to tactical questions. Undoubtedly these unions will lose some of their privileges over the coming years; the scale of the debt Cris makes this inevitable. But will governments have the courage to tackle the root causes of the problem (such as pensions) rather than deal along with secondary problems (such as wages)? And will they dare to tackle the questions of power rather than just pay and perks? To claim any victory in the battle, they need not just to restore the public finances to health. They also need to breathe the spirit of INNOVATION into the Leviathan".

Some change is in progress as witnessed in Wisconsin and other states, even the mayor of the City of Los Angeles recently was quoted, "Somewhere along the way, the schools in which we invested so much time, though, capital, slowly begin to crumble--figuratively and literally...Why, for so long, have we denied denial and indifference to defeat action? I do not raise the question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of experience. I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, and I was a union organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles.... I deeply believe that the teacher's unions can and must be a part of our efforts to transform our schools. Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we forged ahead with a reform policy."

Public sector unions have tremendous power. (in Wisconsin they bullied businesses to support their desperate battle against the Republicans and Governor Walker by threatening to boycott businesses who did not openly agree to support the unions impossible demand for the status quo while the state and nation were heading for bankruptcy) They help people to sit on the other side of the bargaining table, elect pro-union people to public office especially in smaller communities like Peoria.

In Detroit, unions and bad management combined to make General Motors into "General Government" and make Detroit practically a ghost inner city. In Peoria, after the unions finally saw the "writing on the wall", the UAW signed a five year contract with our still major employer, Caterpillar, with a few "whines" rather than the violence of my not too distant memory.

Incompetence plagues the public union sector. In Peoria, we have what is called "the dance of the lemons" - the practice of assigning the worst teachers to new schools rather than not renewing their contracts. Maybe things are changing with the recent hiring of a new superintendent. We will see.

Brazilians joke that public sector union workers "turn up the first day, hang their jackets on the back of their chairs and are never seen again". In Peoria, we send thirteen city public workers and thirteen vehicles to do a job that could be done by 6-7 people and vehicles by the private sector. I witnessed it on the street where I live. Why, other than the weather, of which we in Peoria are not virgins, do we have some of the worst streets, curbs and sidewalks in Illinois?

Changes are on the horizon. Maybe our president has realized that he must change himself if he is going to be reelected for a second term. I still fear he is a demagogue and Lord help us if he IS reelected to a second term no matter what few concessions he makes in the later part of of his first term.

And, oh, yes. In the private sector unions it's usually "you get the job done as expected or start looking". Yes, I know too many in the private sector are subsidized with your money but at least they can't raise taxes to cover deficit. And if the raise prices too high to compete, everybody, including the unions. lose.

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