Death by PropagandaPosted: February 19, 2011
I’ve worked in both the public and private sector. I’ve also worked in union and non-union shops. Additionally, I was part of the collective bargaining process for community college instructors in a right to work state some time ago so I’m familiar with the process. I’ve been a manager and economist that has done strategic budgeting and planning so I’m used to salary and benefit surveys even though I’ve no experience in HR. I also check my facts before taking any one else’s words or wishful thinking. It’s easy to look for a scapegoat for the budget woes of states. The answer lies more in the nature of governors and legislators getting to balance a budget when funds are pouring in than it does in the joy that some people appear to be getting by scapegoating public sector workers and their unions.
For some reason, there’s this idea floating around that public sector employees are raking in the bucks at every one else’s expense. Also, there’s another canard out there that it’s public employees and their generous pensions that are breaking the back of state budgets. I know that’s not really the case for several reasons. The first one is that I know how the collective bargaining process works for a public employee because I’ve done it and the resultant salaries and benefits packages usually aren’t up to private sector levels. It’s based on bringing a rubric of like institutions in like communities and like jobs to the negotiating table. You basically point to that rubric and say here’s the top, bottom, and middle salaries for people in similar jobs in similar institutions. You point to their numbers and then you point to your institutions numbers and you suggest what it would take to put your institution in line with those averages. You negotiate to averages. You can’t negotiate to the best circumstance or you’ll be taken to labor “court” by management and the judges will force you to concede to a more reasonable position. The only time I’ve seen institutions go for the top salary positions is when they’re making a concerted effort to increase their academic standards and recruiting like the Duke Business School did awhile back. That, however, was a complete outlier.
As a union negotiator, you bring the rubric of institutions that would give your membership the best deal in the first round. The institution brings the rubric of institutions that give them the best deal. That rubric has to reflect similar circumstances to your membership. You can’t compare yourself to Harvard if you’re not an Ivy league school. You can’t compare yourself to Hawaii if you’re in the Midwest. Your rubric has to be a set of best matched institutions.
If everything works according to plan you negotiate a joint rubric that represents a middle ground and that middle ground will determine the end package that will likely stand for several years. If you can’t get that done, you declare an impasse and go to the NLRB or some other government entity that decides which rubric you’re going to use and that settles the situation. This happens with both benefits and salaries. It’s repeated every time negotiation year begins. It’s not an outrageous process at all. In the end, the membership either accepts it or rejects it. In my experience, teachers are generally pretty wimpy when it comes to accepting offers. I loved negotiating at a combination technical and community college because the craft people were used to unions and negotiations and were pretty good negotiators. The lead negotiator was a scrappy heating and air conditioning instructor of Italian and Sicilian heritage. I just loved talking strategy with him. Usually, the academic faculty would roll over easily for any scraps. This is a two way negotiating street. It only works when both parties sit down and are willing to hammer out a deal.
The reason this is not working in Wisconsin right now is that one side is refusing to negotiate at all. Not only that, but one side is changing the rules in the middle of the game. If there is no offset, there is no middle ground. This is the only way to get raises in public institutions. I can tell you that since I left that situation and moved to public institutions in Louisiana where you don’t get raises unless you have a governor that’s willing to fight the legislature for an across the board raise for every one. As a faculty, you live and die by whatever salary you got at the onset or you quit. In my experience, the best and the brightest do just that. They bring their new offers and see if they’ll be matched. If not, they move on. I’ve seen the institution then go to the job market and hire much younger and less experienced professors for much bigger salaries after not being able to offer even half that much to a recently tenured one. No one wants to be the one to offer a raise because every one will then want their salary raised to market level. It’s easier to let the good ones go instead. This is especially true in the econ/finance areas and also engineering and computer science because you can easily go to Wall Street or the private sector and make major amounts of money. If you’re represented by a negotiating unit, you come out with a decent cost of living raise annually and if your particular job has had an increase in marketability, you’re salary will move closer to the market. You never approach a private sector equivalence.
I’ve never seen anything in the public sector remotely approach a salary you can get in the private sector. The benefits tend to be better but the monetary compensation is almost always worse. I’ve given you an example from the salary survey done by the AFT in 2010 in the table at the top. It reflects the national salary survey of 2010 done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which is the government’s data collector on labor markets. That’s the same people that collect unemployment statistics and inflation statistics. They have no ‘agenda’ but to collect the data. Individual groups just use the data to learn what the going market rate is for public and private sector jobs.
Now, I want to give you examples of things from the state of Louisiana. I’m going to use two resources. First, is a search engine set up by The Times Picayune of all state employee salaries. Use it to search out only one thing. The job title clerk. Clerks in state government have a union. So, just stick clerk in the job title and submit. You’re going to see there’s quite a few “pages” of clerk names, departments, and salaries. Six lucky people on the first page make high salaries for having that clerk title. The next group on the next few pages make between about $25,000 to $35,000 annually. You’ll see that the vast majority of these folks basically make around $15,000 -19,000 annually by the time you get pass about 3- 4 pages out of a total of 14 pages of names. I would like to remind you that the poverty level for a family of four is $22,050 annually. For a family of two it is 14,570 and for one person it is $10,830. These levels are for the entire country.
There’s another graphic that you can check that shows exactly who the top paid employees are and how much they make. I can assure you that none of these folks are covered by the state employees unions and none of them have any peers who have lower or higher salaries or benefits depending on when they entered service alone. These people are mostly political appointees of the governor. In this case, they are political appointees of Bobby Jindal. I’m going to show you the graph that is relevant. (It’s down below this section.) The salary structure is top heavy. You can go back and search who has the top money. You will see that it is top university administrators and coaches. Even these salaries do not stack up to private sector CEOs or coaches. It isn’t the clerks that are making outrageous salaries and it isn’t their bargaining unit that is at fault for any of this. You’ll also see if you got that page that many state workers are attorneys, engineers, teachers, nurses and doctors. These are professional people. You cannot expect to recruit and retain the best professional, well-educated service workers if you do not offer them a competitive salary. The most mobile ones will leave eventually if you don’t offer them raises and benefits commensurate with the private sector. You can go to any of the BLS salary surveys and you will see what the AFT put in that nice graphic above year after year after year. You will not get a compensation in the public sector that is more generous than the private sector at those levels of expertise. If there is a private sector ‘competitor’ for offering the job. Believe it or not, not every one is an English teacher that might likely wind up as a waitress. Here in New Orleans, most of the English teachers at my university would make better money if they’d wait tables or pour cocktails in the French Quarter. The only difference is that English teachers get a pension and insurance and they get to do the job they love.
Okay, now I’m going to go all economist on you. When you are a teacher, a firefighter, or a public health or safety worker, you face what is called a monopsony. That means there is likely to be one source of jobs and so you face the buyer’s version of a monopoly. What this means is the chips will be stack against you coming out with a ‘competitive’ wage. For example, how many forensic scientists do you suppose work outside of the local police departments? You may face a number of municipalities that could hire you in this situation. It is not, however, illegal for municipalities to collude on setting standards for salaries and benefits. Hence, you may face the same situation in city after city.
There seems to be this mindset that public servants should be public slaves from some quarters. Why should the clerk who fills out your driver’s license form be treated differently than the clerk that fills out your bank deposit slip? Why this double standard that public employees can’t be represented by unions? Well, first, I think many people still believe that public employees served by unions some how get a better deal than the others. This generally is not the case for all things. The only items that have held together for state employees that are not as available in the private sector tends to be the pension benefits and probably the insurance. One of the reasons that the insurance tends to be not such a big deal is that many states self insure and they have huge pools of employees so they can be more generous with benefits at a lower cost. I’ve generally lived in states where the biggest employer is the state. That’s a lot of people and insurance gets cheaper as the pool grows larger.
I think one of the other reasons is that people in nonunion jobs feel helpless about their futures and they are angry that they really don’t have the same safety in numbers that you see with union shops. You can’t be bullied by an employer when there is a union in place. This does have a tendency to protect even the worst employee, but when you work for capricious bosses, and we all do, you’ll never be safer than when you have union representation. You also are more aware of when your number will be up during downsizing and you will get a recall if they start rehiring if you’re a member of a union. This type of job security is generally the most important thing to a state employee which is why they work for lower monetary compensation. But again, why begrudge others what you could have if you’d just organize your work place?
I’ve been seeing way to many sites discuss ‘greedy’ teachers who selfishly walk out of the classroom to protest their right to organize. I really don’t get this meme at all. Wouldn’t you fight for your family’s livelihood if it were threatened? Why are teachers supposed to be treated differently than any one else?
A Governor or any other publicly elected official isn’t just held to account on voting day. Democracy is a day-in-and-day out process. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was elected to handle the budget. He immediately cut $117 billion in revenues coming from businesses and created a $130 billion deficit. His answer to covering his self created deficit was to change the terms of thousands of previously negotiated commitments to public employees. He backed out of the state’s commitment. He’s also refused to remove the union busting portions of the bill in exchange for salary and benefit concessions. How is this anything but dogmatic and unfair to state employees? Who makes heroes out of people that break commitments? Each of those families made plans based on the sanctity of the promise the state of Wisconsin made to them. They were part of the agreement and they should be part of renegotiating the agreement because that’s the rules of the game there. Changing the rules of a game in the middle of play is cheating.
If Governor Walker was so interested in frugality, then he should’ve started by not passing those $117 million in tax breaks. An election victory is not a blank check in a democracy.
Within days of becoming governor, Mr. Walker — who hung a sign on the doorknob of his office that reads “Wisconsin is open for business” — began stirring things up, and drawing headlines.
He rejected $810 million in federal money that the state was getting to build a train line between Madison and Milwaukee, saying the project would ultimately cost the state too much to operate. He decided to turn the state’s Department of Commerce into a “public-private hybrid,” in which hundreds of workers would need to reapply for their jobs.
He and state lawmakers passed $117 million in tax breaks for businesses and others, a move that many of his critics point to now as a sign that Mr. Walker made the state’s budget gap worse, then claimed an emergency that requires sacrifices from unions. Technically, the tax cuts do not go into effect in this year’s budget (which Mr. Walker says includes a $137 million shortfall), but in the coming two-year budget, during which the gap is estimated at $3.6 billion.
Democrats here say Mr. Walker’s style has led to a sea change in Wisconsin’s political tradition.
“Every other Republican governor has had moderates in their caucus and histories of working with Democrats,” said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the state’s Democratic Party. “But he is a hard-right partisan who does not negotiate, does not compromise. He is totally modeled after a slash-and-burn, scorched-earth approach that has never existed here before.”
There’s some very interesting polls coming out of the Wisconsin protests. Here is some poll analysis on unions and public unions from the CSM.
Asked about “when you hear of a disagreement between state or local governments and unions that represent government workers,” more Americans say their first reaction is to side with the union (44 percent) than with state or local governments (38 percent). And substantially more Americans see union contracts as ensuring that workers are “treated fairly” than as giving workers an “unfair advantage.”
Other polls have found mixed results. Here’s some coverage at Huffpo for the Pew poll cited above as well as a few others. Either way, it’s interesting to note that Walker has some pretty strong ties to the notorious Koch Brothers. These trust fund babies spend a lot of John Bircher Daddy’s money trying to bust unions. I don’t think this can be discounted either.
According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign’s second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch’s PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used politicial maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.
When there is big corporate money in elections, there is only one offset these days. That would be the money and free labored offered up by unions. Undoubtedly, the public sector unions are some of the last big unions standing. I can only imagine how much the Kochs and others would like to gut the fund raising and GOTV efforts of unions that are usually made available to candidates that thwart their Bircher plots. After all, there’s very little standing right now to check the power and political donations of megacorporations. This fact alone should make any one support the few unions left standing. However, the bigger question remains. Why do so many people begrudge public workers a voice in the terms of their employment?