In the Sunday New York Times, Paul Krugman argued that the only way to “restore the middle-class society we used to have” is by shoring up collective bargaining rights for unions—”so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages.”
The same day, a Washington Post op-ed went further, claiming that “public workers’ pay, benefits, and bargaining rights” are not “what is really at stake” in the Wisconsin fight. No, the authors argued, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is waging war on the middle class by trying to bust unions that “want to make good middle-class jobs the norm.”
Are these papers so out of touch that they think anyone opposes “good middle-class jobs” for Americans? They have at least been taken in by the idea that unions’ greatest concern is for the jobs of their members. That is simply untrue.
Again and again over the last few years, unions have allowed their members to be laid off when concessions of benefits could have saved jobs. Last July, the city of Oakland, CA was forced to lay off 80 police officers because the police union would not concede benefits that were busting the city’s budget: The union could have saved those jobs, and it didn’t.
The city of Plainfield, NJ is wasting time and money in a protracted fight with seven local unions that have been holding their ground since November. The city is trying to find an alternative to a third round of budget-related layoffs, but the unions aren’t nearly so concerned about those jobs.
This is not a new trend, as 2009 was a banner year for unions’ indifference toward their own members’ job security. Gov. David Paterson (D) was forced to lay off 8,900 New York State employees—about 4 percent of that workforce—because unions refused even to consider renegotiating contracts. Mayor Richard Daley (D) of Chicago had to lay off hundreds of city employees because the Teamsters and AFSCME rejected a compromise that would have saved those jobs.
Standard procedure for public unions is to give not an inch in the face of a budget shortfall, and accept the layoffs that result. The tactic seems irrational until it is remembered that layoffs (like everything else in the union world) are done by seniority, which means that almost everyone in a union knows he is safe from a coming round of cuts. The least senior members who will lose their jobs are the lowest-compensated anyway, meaning they have no sway within their union or at the negotiating table.
In 2009 when the Bethlehem, NY teachers’ union did accept a compromise to save its members’ jobs, the district’s superintendent of schools said, “The fact that people are meeting at a table … I know my colleagues in other districts are envious of that.” More common are hard-line demands for extra cash no matter the circumstances—and if that means raising taxes on middle-class Americans, so be it.
Kenneth Spence is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm