Misery Needs Company, Part Deux prompted a series of useful comments from readers Melon, Dan K., and JR. I’m going to respond here to a central thread therein. As Dan K. asks, ‘Are luxurious union contracts contributing in a significant way to our economic problems’? (By ‘economic problems,’ I presume state budgets like Wisconsin’s are at issue.)
Now, if it is the luxuriousness of those contracts that is a problem, then the correct response presumably would be to renegotiate those contracts when they expire. But not, surely, to take away collective bargaining rights? Does this follow as well? Clearly, Scott Walker thought so, for that was his strategy in Wisconsin. However, to go from ‘these contracts are untenable given budgetary constraints’ to ‘you have no right to bargain collectively’ requires a union-busting–rather than mere budget-fixing–agenda.
And the Wisconsin example demonstrates what is wrong even with answering ‘yes’ to that question above. For Wisconsin shows us that the introduction of the financial crisis is not a ‘red herring.’ Consider the following reasons for its budgetary problems:
Falling tax revenue resulting from the recession is the greatest culprit of Wisconsin’s budget woes — between 2008 and 2009, state tax revenues fell over 7%.
Since July 2009, there has been an estimated dip in revenues of $200 million annually; the state saw little growth in tax revenues in 2010.
Unemployment rose more than 4 percentage points between 2007 and 2010, forcing more Wisconsin residents on Medicaid and causing state Medicaid costs to rise.
A series of tax cuts passed since 2003 that cumulatively represent $3.7 billion and, by 2013, make up a $800 million-per-year reduction in tax revenues.
In addition, this year agency budget requests will rise $2.9 billion — nearly two-thirds of which is for Medicaid, with much of that amount associated with replacing one-time federal Medicaid revenues the state received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Look at those reasons: falling tax revenue because of the recession, tax cuts, rising unemployment, rising healthcare costs. Sound familiar? The Scott Walker solution: Bust the unions! It is the transparency of the union-busting agenda that produced the Wisconsin protests. Those protesting were not simply rejecting a particular contract; they knew that the larger Walker agenda was to get rid of unions. (Melon’s comment acknowledges that budgetary problems are better understood by paying attention to the larger economic picture that unions are embedded in.) So, again, to my interlocutors: if public sector union workers’ contract terms are untenable, then why not revise them? Or perhaps seek to collect adequate tax revenues by not enacting tax cuts? Why take away collective bargaining?
JR seems to suggest that because 50% of American workers work for the government, there is no need to worry about the ‘profit imperative crushing them’. Does this mean that public sector workers need not–should not–form unions? But the central point is maintaining worker rights in the workplace, in the face of employer power, via representation by a collective entity. It is the imbalance in power between employer and individual employee that is at crucial, and which warrants the formation of workers into collective bargaining units.
Non-unionized labor is cheaper; that is why it will always be more popular with employers. The question is whether in seeking to pay that lower cost, by the device of getting rid of collective bargaining, the employer is actually seeking something far more valuable: the ability to regulate the workplace to his heart’s content.