On, Wisconsin! The War on Collective Bargaining

Unless we get past the political food fight, we won t get to the important issues that are at stake.
by | March 8, 2011 AT 9:00 AM

Fight! Fellows! -- Fight, fight, fight!

We'll win this game!

-- University of Wisconsin fight song

Have you taken sides yet in the battle of Madison? As with a football game, the key is to mindlessly root for your team.

Your team, after all, is the underdog, the champion of the little guy. Your side is pure. Their side is pure evil.

Except this isn't a football game at all. This is a democracy, and we all deserve better than the rhetoric we're being served. Like so many topics poisoned by politics, it's hard to have a thoughtful discussion about what's going on in the Badger state. The political link between public-sector unions and the Democratic Party muddies the waters. The cynical observer can credibly accuse both parties of simply acting in their own self interest, seeking to defend their supporters and undermine their opposition, respectively.

The venom makes it hard to have a thoughtful discussion regarding the proper role of public-sector collective bargaining in our democracy. It is, however, an important discussion to have.

There is no question that over the last 50 years the growth and political influence of public-sector unions has significantly influenced how government operates. In states where public-sector unions are strong, collective bargaining agreements dictate how public employees are evaluated and compensated, and include a thicket of work rules. This has had an impact on efficiency, and it hasn't been a positive one.

Moreover, in states such as California and Massachusetts, union lobbying during the good times of the late 1990s encouraged politicians to increase their pension benefits without increasing the taxes needed to fund them -- thus increasing the burgeoning underfunding of retiree obligations.

On the other hand, the extent to which public unions and their members are being scapegoated for our current budget problems is unfair. Public employee compensation and retiree obligations are part of our budget problems, for sure, but a relatively small one compared to the time bombs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

And even if you think some of the collective bargaining powers of unions ought to be curtailed, bashing the rank and file who teach in public schools and patrol our streets is counterproductive. Describing those who represent public employees as "pinky ring union thugs" is the cheapest of shots.

Unions represent their members. If they didn't seek the best deal in terms of wages, benefits and job security, they wouldn't be doing their jobs. The interest of public unions isn't the same as the general interest of citizens and taxpayers. That's not a criticism, it's just reality. The interests of pharmaceutical companies, oil companies and farmers aren't the same as the general interest, either, yet they get to participate in democracy, too.

Unless we get past the political food fight, we won't get to the important issues that are at stake. What is the best course of action going forward?

In my view, changes in the nature of the government-public union relationship that will allow governments greater flexibility are needed in many states. But these changes need to be approached with respect for current employees and retirees. Retirees and those close to retirement should be held harmless. Current employees should expect to see modest modifications. Government also has to stop making promises it can't afford to keep. Over time, we need to put an end to the gap in public vs. private retirement, whereby public employees enjoy risk-free, defined-benefit pensions while those who pay their salaries sweat it out in defined contribution 401(k) plans.

These changes are needed as much for the current budget shortfalls as for reasons of efficiency. In areas from education to corrections, efforts to embrace innovative management approaches have too often been stymied by collective bargaining agreements and the political influence of public unions.

The fair treatment of public employees should be an important value, but one that shouldn't be achieved at the expense of providing high-quality, cost-effective services. In some states, we have lost a sense of this balance.

I don't know how the fight in Wisconsin will turn out, but I still retain a faint hope that it will lead to a civil public dialogue on an important policy topic. The clock is ticking, however. Rah, rah, sis-boom bah! Go democracy!