Conservatives and union activists rarely agree on things, but they do share this common mistake – they conflate public employee unions with public employees generally. Both are very wrong to do so.
That’s why, as a guy who has spent most of his adult lifetime working for the government, I have no problem calling out government employee unions – the subject of my latest piece in the RGJ.
Most criticism you hear about these unions – or “associations” as they prefer to be called – is from private sector conservatives who complain about the inflated cost to the taxpayer that comes with the pay and benefits packages the unions are able to negotiate. It’s sometimes a fair beef, but it’s too often self-destructively wrapped in what sounds suspiciously like the bitter jealousy of the socialist. “Hey – that guy gets paid more than me! No fair!” Republican candidates for office who have chosen careers – or even have any experience – in the public sector are too often pilloried for that fact alone by other Republicans, which is just silly.
The difference between an actual conservative and a nut-job pseudo-anarchist who wrongly claims the label is that conservatives don’t actually hate the government. We often hate what it does, and are clear-eyed about the destructive power of government when it starts to color outside of its prescribed lines. But we have an affirmative view of how government can and should work to protect and preserve the liberty of a citizenry, and many of us who are in government do so because we want to be part of that protection.
And so – as someone who works in government, and who believes that a government manned by dedicated, talented, and fairly compensated employees is a necessary ingredient to a free and prosperous society – I ask again: How do public employee unions benefit any of us? As someone who has seen government workers at their best (see the above pic), and knows they don’t have to be unionized to be the best, why do we take seriously those who insist otherwise at great cost to us all?
My biggest problem with the unions is that I think they screw over everyone in the long run, including – especially – their membership.
Anyone’s who’s ever had a government job is familiar with the following scenario. One or two fellow employees simply suck at their jobs. Maybe they’re actively terrible, or maybe they just drag their feet and complain, while accomplishing the bare minimum (if that). If they’ve been there for a long time, they probably get paid more than you, even though you work harder, do a better job, and accomplish more. In the Navy, we sometimes referred to these people as being on the ROAD program – Retired On Active Duty.
This happens in the private sector, too, of course. But it happens less, because it’s a lot easier to get rid of the dead weight, even if it’s entrenched. No one likes to let an employee go, but a private business can’t afford to pay people who aren’t producing – or to pay more when they can get a better product for less. If they do, ultimately the whole organization will fail, and then everyone is out of a job. That’s one of the many reasons you just don’t see that many private organizations that are unionized any more.
(The military has “up or out” rules, which mitigates the otherwise frustrating inability to just fire someone. That, and individual commanders have a lot more direct control when it comes to work assignments, reenlistment, promotion, etc. That individual control would do wonders for other public organizations, like giving principals direct control over hiring and firing decisions at schools.)
This scenario is aggravating for everyone who has to carry the dead weight’s load, and one of two things happen. Either the best people leave, reducing the per capita talent, or they learn the lesson – why work hard when you can’t get fired, and your pay is determined by longevity alone? Not everyone does, of course. Plenty of people – MOST people – want to do a good job if for nothing else than the sake of their personal integrity. But most isn’t enough when we can do better.
Sometimes, a manager who wants to rage against this machine actually tries to do the right thing and get rid of an underperformer. But the employee will almost always grieve their termination, no matter how righteous the firing was. And in that case, litigation ties up the matter until it ultimately settles for some ridiculous sum. In my column, I reference the case of the Sparks Police Officer who was paid out $219,000 after being let go for texting some kind of smut while on duty. Management didn’t pay it out. City government officials didn’t dip into their personal pockets. Instead, that money came from taxpayers. It’s money that could have paid for new personal protection equipment, another cop who wasn’t a complete idiot, more teachers, a new stoplight to protect pedestrians… The list goes on.
The Sparks scenario is far from the only example of this, and most are never reported. But the cost to you is incalculable.
In a situation like that, you can be certain, too, that the stated reason for the firing wasn’t the only problem with that guy. It probably wasn’t even the main problem. The difference between a great cop (or firefighter, or teacher, or a Deputy DA) and a terrible one is not often quantifiable. Such jobs require a million judgment calls a day, and some of those calls are life and death.
A healthy force recognizes that, and takes steps to get rid of people with bad judgment before they get someone – maybe even another cop – killed. (Other government bureaucrats aren’t likely to kill someone directly, but they can ruin lives and livelihoods.) Unions do the opposite of that – they insist every cop who manages to get hired should be on the force forever, and they’re willing to spend tens of thousands of your dollars to make that happen. So tell me – who is it that’s actually looking out for the majority of the men and women who wear those badges?
For my liberal friends who rightly decry the bad cops – do you think their peers don’t know they’re bad cops? Do you think they’d still be carrying a badge and a gun if they weren’t protected by their union? I recognize that sometimes there are rotten supervisors who fire good people for no good reason, but that’s a far less dangerous outcome for society than the current alternative.
And then there is the retirement. Oh, boy, do people get prickly when you point out that public employee retirement schemes promise more than they can deliver in the long term. Why is this? It’s the employees themselves who are going to take the hit.
Right now, PERS has promised about $41 Billion more than it’s anticipated to be able to pay. If you buy the “special” accounting that PERS gets to use, it’s still over $12 Billion. But either way – things that can’t go on forever, don’t. Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. Promises that are impossible to keep will always be broken.
Strident union activists are either willfully ignorant of this inexorable fact (people have a remarkable talent for ignoring bad news), or they’re simply gambling that they’ll die before the bottom falls out. Either way, that’s a terrible way for a community to remain fiscally healthy.
The longer people live, and the more expensive health care becomes, the worse this math gets. Municipalities are left either reneging on promised benefits, which hurts the retirees, or they have to cut overall services to pay for those benefits, which hurts, well, everyone. “Everyone,” by the way, also includes public employees who rely on police, fire, schools, etc. Either way, public employees ultimately lose, along with everyone else.
This isn’t baseless fearmongering – it’s already happening. Solving this problem only gets harder the longer we wait, and we’re waiting only because the unions are politically powerful. So again – who exactly is “attacking” public employees?
Public employee unions would do themselves an enormous favor if they acknowledged and moved to correct some of these deficiencies. How in the world does a union profit from keeping a bad cop? Instead, anyone who points out that things can and should improve is falsely accused of attacking all public employees. This is usually followed by the sound of arms breaking, as union activists vigorously pat themselves on the backs for being the only members of society who actually care about their community. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a Hitler reference.
And then there is very real intimidation tactics if you don’t toe the line. I once saw a supervisor – who was openly supportive of collective bargaining in general but couldn’t agree with a union legislative effort – be falsely accused during a legislative committee of threatening and intimidating his employees. It was a dirty, dirty lie, and fortunately, I was there to correct it. I can only imagine what happens without the light of day.
Of course, this isn’t getting beaten and left for dead on the waterfront, and more public employees need to insist that their unions start taking a bigger picture approach. People have risked far more for the long-term benefit of their communities than dirty looks from the next cubicle over.
One more thing – I don’t begrudge anyone their paycheck. Well, maybe when certain folks are fraudulently spiking their overtime to get quarter million dollar payouts when they retire in their 40s, I begrudge that, since I have to pay for it. But by and large, I want public employee pay to be competitive with similar jobs in the private sector. I want top notch attorneys prosecuting crimes and defending the indigent accused. I want smart, savvy, and educated police officers who possess good judgment patrolling my streets. I want a mail carrier who comes on time and can get the mail in the right box (we may or may not have a current problem with that). I want clerks who recognize paperwork mistakes and can help people fix them before documents get recorded or filed. I want people with the drive and initiative to fix problems on their own, instead of shuffling along and reflexively muttering, “Not my job.”
To get those people, you have to offer competitive pay. I’m fine with that.
My complaint is that Reno/Washoe County/Nevada can only afford so much in personnel costs. If we pay more than we can afford, and more importantly, promise more in the future than our children can afford, then what?
Living within one’s means is a necessary prerequisite to long term stability and prosperity. Do unions not want the community as a whole to be stable and prosperous?
Ultimately, I think union bosses have lied to themselves about the problems with their organizations so much that they’ve come to truly believe the unbelievable. But if unions can’t be honest with themselves, why would anyone expect them to be honest with the rest of us? If union bosses are willing to screw over their own members for their own short-term gain – whether through honest shortsightedness or malicious indifference – who honestly thinks they are a benefit to society as a whole?