Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Other Side: Public Employee Union Members

WARNING: For those of you who visit my blog for the occasional humorous or warm and fuzzy post, you should probably avert your eyes and close this page now, because this post is neither of those things. You might even call it a rant. Something I am known to do every so often, but I generally do it in the privacy of my own living room, so as not to inflict my crankiness on others. In other words, I’m climbing up on my soap box today. You have been warned.

I never intended for this blog to become a political forum but, for weeks now, I have watched the tweets flowing through my timeline about the public employee union dispute in Wisconsin. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 99.99% of those tweets have been mini-rants against not only the public employee union in Wisconsin but all public employee unions nationwide. Some people, in my opinion, have been truly outrageous in condemning all public employee union members and calling them, among other unsavory things, greedy, selfish, over-paid, lazy thugs. I have been surprised and saddened by this, because I thought most of my Twitter friends would be more interested in hearing both sides of the story and coming to a well thought-out conclusion.

Personally, I have searched for the actual dollar amounts involved in the Wisconsin dispute, and I have not yet been able to find anything which sets out how much union members earn or how much they pay for their benefits. From what I have been able to find, it appears the union members were willing to negotiate on benefit costs and other issues, until the governor abruptly decided to put an end to all collective bargaining. And everyone is surprised that the union members are upset? Frankly, to me, that doesn’t look so much like a move to balance the state’s budget as political grandstanding on the governor’s part. But I simply don’t have enough information to form a solid opinion about the dispute in Wisconsin, so I’m passing on passing judgment.

Are there bad seeds in public employee unions? Of course there are, but you cannot judge a group of more than 7 million people based on the actions of a relatively small number of union members and leaders. I’m fairly sure no one is condemning all Baptist congregations in this country because of the actions of the Westboro “Baptist” Church.

While I don’t know much about the specifics of the Wisconsin situation, I do know something about public employee unions, and I think some enlightenment is desperately needed. Not being in a particularly creative mood today, I’ll use an old, well-worn phrase – here’s the rest of the story.

First of all, state workers in our state have no choice. That’s not something they tell you at the new employee orientation. But, shortly after accepting a state job, a union rep will swoop in and hound you day and night to join the union. Then, if you steadfastly refuse to join or just keep avoiding the calls, you will receive a letter from the public employee union informing you that you do NOT have to join the union but you DO have to pay dues or you will be terminated. The letter will also state they are going to assess dues retroactively to your date of hire and, if you don’t pay up by a certain date, you will be terminated.

You will be stunned. You will wonder how that could be legal. But with a little research, you will discover it is legal. Then, after lobbing this grenade into the middle of your life and threatening your job, the union will then make you an offer you literally can’t refuse and say they will “forgive” most of the past due dues and accept a substantially smaller amount. All of which sounds like the very definition of extortion, but it’s legal extortion, so you fork over the cash to keep your job.

More than likely, years later, you will still have no clue what the union does, other than take money out of your check and give it to politicians you don’t like or support. Oddly, you will never hear from the union. There are no meetings, no newsletters, no explanation of what they’re doing for members, or even how to reach a union representative.

Meanwhile, when our state legislators realized the state was headed for a budget crisis, they instituted a hiring freeze, decided not to fill some positions as they were vacated, cancelled scheduled raises (which means there have been no raises for 2+ years), instituted furlough days and increases in the mandatory contributions to the public employees retirement account, which is now almost 11% of gross pay.

Other benefits offered by the state have seen similar increases. Of course, some of those increases might not affect you directly, because the price tag was too expensive from the get-go, and you opted out. Nevertheless, you are taking home less money now than you were two years ago. And, since those vacated positions in your department have not been re-filled, you have been doing the jobs of two or three people for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the 8 months you didn’t have a working answering machine or voice mail because it wasn’t in the department’s budget, so people called your home at all hours, 7 days a week.

I know several public employees and none of them are earning more than $50,000 a year. Most are earning substantially less, despite having degrees and years and years of experience. Some of them also work nights, weekends, and holidays, for which they do NOT get paid, for no other reason than they want to do the very best job they can for the public they serve.

Public employee union members in this state have taken all of this in stride – no protests, no yelling, no rabble-rousing, no capital building take-over, and no hitting of people over the head with signs. In fact, they have pretty much rolled over and played dead, because they just want to keep their jobs.

Despite all this, there are people in this country who are condemning public employee union members, calling them vile names, and questioning their character and integrity, simply because they are union members. My parents did a pretty good job of teaching me right from wrong, and that is wrong.

For the most part, public employee union members are hard-working, regular folks, just like you. The only difference is they were forced to join a union, or at least pay union dues, to keep their jobs.

Like the guy who inspects the restaurants in your town and the food vendors at every public event you attend to make sure the food you eat is safe and handled properly – that’s a public employee.

Or the social worker with 100+ open cases on suspected child abuse, foster placements and other heart-wrenchers – that’s a public employee.

Or the 3rd grade teacher who buys school supplies for 10 kids in her class who showed up without any and buys art supplies because there is no money in the school budget for them – that’s a public employee.

If you want to call out union leaders, that’s fine by me. There’s no love lost there. But, before you trash all public employee union members, take a look around your neighborhood because, chances are, you know one.

All thoughtful and rational comments are welcomed. Profane or offensive comments are not. Thank you.


2woofers said...

Although I agree that something needs to be done to give states and municipalities more bargaining leverage in negotiations I don't believe that unions are the problem they're being made out to be. The whole union busting idea has little to do with balancing state budgets and everything to do with corporations like the Koch Brothers who want to see all unions wiped out. In many cases, like New Jersey, the problem with paying the public employee pensions comes from the fact years worth of payments into the pension fund have been skipped to balance the budget and now the payments have come due. States that have wasted that money on other things are now looking for ways to get out of paying those past due amounts.

Everybody has a horror story about unions. And maybe some of them have more power than they should. But were it not for unions we would not have a minimum wage, we would not have child labor laws, we would not have workplace safety regulations. We would still be doing business like it was done in the 18th and 19th centuries in this country. Many people would like to see us return to that. Break the unions and that will happen.

Union negotiations are for more than pay and benefits. Police and firefighters have to negotiate for safer work conditions and health benefits. These are not safe occupations under the best of circumstances. Were it not for union negotiations many municipalities would forgo the cost of bullet proof vests. Teachers negotiate for class sizes and other things that help improve the quality of our children's education. We could save a lot of money if we were able to put 60 or 70 children in one class and then pay the teacher based on merit. Think that would work?

I am not nor have I ever been a union member. I have spent the majority of my life self-employed. But there were times when I worked for other people that I wished I had had someone on my side.

Unions basically are being made the scapegoats so that politicians can ignore some of the real spending problems that states have. Start taking a good look at your state's budget and look at the items that cost far more than the state employees. And then figure out what it would cost to do away with state employees.

Picture a state where every government employee makes minimum wage with no benefits. I don't know about you, but I'm not living there.

Great blog. Thanks!

Brenda said...

Thanks for the comments, Woofers. Like you, I believe there has to be a happy medium with the unions. All those millions and millions of dollars they collect in dues should be used for the members and not doled out to over-paid union leaders and politicians hand-picked by those same people Just imagine how many worker's salaries and benefits that money could be used for instead.

I know that unions have secured better wages and working conditions for millions of Americans over the last several decades, so I know they can and do serve a purpose. My father worked for the railroad for 40+ years and, before the union was formed, safety issues were a huge concern. More than one of his co-workers was killed on the job. But, through the union, the workers were able to get their voices heard and life-saving changes were made.

New Mexico has done the rob Peter to pay Paul thing for years, as have other states. Then, when the public employee retirement account investments took a nosedive a couple of years ago, that added insult to injury. In fact, some of the investment advisors that worked for New Mexico were indicted and convicted for kickback schemes in New York. There was a lot of talk about indictments for a while but, so far, they haven't been charged in New Mexico. Not that that would get the money back anyway. Instead, our state legislature decided to raise the employee contribution to almost 11% of gross pay to make up the difference.

I couldn't agree more with your statement that unions are being made the scapegoats. And union members are taking the heat for something which they had nothing to do with in the first place.

Renagade said...

Actual you both said it all ... And No - have no problem with the normal Union worker - just have issues with the way some unions work.
I too have never been in a union, but have a problem with anyone telling me I would have to join and pay dues to work anywhere. And have a problem with the way they protesters conducted themselves .. sadly, they have soured many on all union workers.... and it is unfair to those good ones.

Vicky Bell said...

What woofers said..... My husband works for UPS and is in the union. In the 80s, UPS made the top ten on a list of dangerous places to work (most accidents and injuries). When my husband was injured and had surgery he was out of work for close to a year. If it weren't for the union he would have lost the job he'd had for near 20 years at the time. He'll retire in a couple years with about 35 years in. I'm scared for what might happen to his benefits if the union is weakened.

Brenda said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Ren and Vicky. With all this talk about insolvent state pension funds, we're more than a little nervous around the edges. I can't imagine what will happen to millions of people who have been counting on having those pensions when they retire. And, with mandatory contributions up to 11% of gross pay, in addition to all the other taxes, we certainly can't afford to open our own retirement account. Talk about a Catch-22.

Although I do have my eye on some acreage out there in the mountains. Maybe we could make a deal with the state . . . ;)