I was raised in the copper mining town of Butte Montana, very much a union town. I left Butte when I was 19, so I can’t claim to be an authority on the union experience there. However, one impression I had while growing up there was that it seemed to me that neither the “company” (Anaconda Mining Company), nor the unions had the best interests of the miner at heart. During that time in the 1950s, it seemed that one union or the other was going out on strike, often for many months at a time. Financial recovery following these strikes was long term for many of the workers.
Were unions necessary in Butte? Yes they were. Mining was a very dangerous job with poor and dangerous working conditions, and often times a short life span. I never knew my grandfather, a Butte hard rock miner, because he died of the “miners con” when my mother was 12 years old. An uncle died of a relatively young age from the “con”, and I recall incidences of deaths due to mine accidents. Another uncle was caught in a cave in which nearly cost him his life, and left Butte rather than go back into the mines. So yes, unions were a necessary part of protecting the workers of Butte.
However, the Civil Service workers in Wisconsin, and elsewhere, including the Federal Government civil service workers, are far removed from the miners in Butte, and I have a hard time generating much empathy or sympathy for their plight.
Most states are in severe financial crisis, and much of this is due to the underfunded benefits given to the public sector work force. Indeed, many cities are also in financial straights as well, and for the same reason. I lived for many years in San Diego CA, and saw the struggles of that local government to live within budget in the context of unfunded mandates. Recall the bankruptcy of Vallejo not so many years ago?
When I look at public sector workers I see the following:
- Tenure. After a few short years, many government workers become pretty much assured of a job for life. In 40+ years of work in the private sector, I have been pretty much on a two week notice. When the contracts wind down and end, the money runs out, and people start looking for new work elsewhere, if they can get it.
- Pensions: Pensions were common in private industry when times were good. I have a small pension (< $1,000/month) from the last company I worked for. That company, like so many others, terminated the pension plan a number of years ago. My retirement package is primarily from 401K contributions paid for by myself and the companies that I have worked for. As you are well aware, these 401K plans are subject to the ups and downs of the stock market. Fortunately, business has been good in America for many years, and my nest egg is sufficient for my needs. In short, my retirement is keyed to the prosperity of American business, and not the government.
I see teachers, and other public sector workers, retiring with pensions close to, if not exceeding the wages they received in the last few years of work. How much of this is paid for by the employee, and how much by the tax payer. Does a 5.8% employee contribution to retirement seem excessive to you? It apparently does to the Wisconsin public sector union workers.
- Health Care: In the private sector, health insurance is a joint venture between an employer and employee, my company picks up the lions share of the tab, and I pay a portion. In the case of many small businesses and self employed, the insurance is entirely paid for by the individual.
In the public sector, health insurance is picked up by the taxpayer. I understand that, and am ok with it. There really is no alternative to this arrangement, and it is a legitimate cost of government. However, is asking the state employee to pay for 12% of that cost asking too much? I think not.
- The behavior of the union demonstrators: Has been atrocious in my opinion. We see teachers abandoning the classroom, and in many cases their students joining them in protest.
We see doctors passing out doctors notes excusing state employees on the shaky basis of “stress”. early on in the demonstrations, we saw many instances of placards depicting the Governor as Hitler or Mubarak, and likening their cause to the oppressed of Egypt.
- The behavior of the Democrat Senatorial delegation: There was an election, and the state financial crisis was an issue. Republicans won the Governorship and the State House, and have set out to balance the budget as required by law. So what did the Democrat senators do? The went into self imposed exile across the border in Illinois. As a political tactic, this is something I’ve not seen before, and is bazar. As I understand our American political system, we have elections, and then debate and votes on the floors of Congress and the State Houses. Now we have a new method; elections, and then run away and hide when things don’t go the desired way. My hope is that there are enough clear thinking voters in Wisconsin to recall these runaways.
- President Obama: The president has escalated this to a national level by siding with the unions. This is in line with his previous attacks on the state of Arizona. Rather than recognizing our federal system of government with states having unique and separate powers and responsibilities, the president clearly sides against the states in what is a state issue.
In all of this, I‘m wondering about the many state (and I guess municipal) workers that may be laid off if a budget agreement is not worked out in Wisconsin. Will the unions come along side of them, and if so how? Are the union workers who, are so concerned about their perceived loss of union power, equally as concerned about these workers who are on the verge of losing their jobs? I’ve not heard much discussion or reporting on this aspect of this issue, or have I missed it?
What say you?