COLUMBIA — For what appears to be an eternity, but in reality a mere few weeks, we have been bombarded by the drama of Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker versus that state's public employee unions. As is the case with emotion-driven issues, which are lucrative targets for politicians, pundits, columnists and anyone with a personal ax to grind, reason and truth are among the first casualties.
When Walker's effort to rein in a $3.6 billion budget shortfall included requiring employees in public-sector unions to contribute to their retirement and health benefits (as is done in the private sector) and placing certain restrictions on their collective bargaining, a circus atmosphere materialized. Huge demonstrations at the Capitol in Madison, along with teacher "sickouts," school closures and a mass exodus of Democratic senators to a motel over the Illinois border were the order of the moment.
Demonizing Walker in particular and Republicans in general, the protesters and their nationwide supporters vented their rage with signs, chants, sit-ins and some destruction or defacement of public property; their sole originality was, at long last, in not laying the blame on George W. Bush. Some rather amusing sidelights included demonstrators engaging in the uncivil behavior for which they faulted the tea party and the unflattering nickname given to AWOL senators: "Flee Baggers."
Much of this anti-Republican rhetoric accuses the GOP of attacking the working class, destroying the middle class, denying collective bargaining rights and busting unions. Examination of these allegations discloses that most would not pass muster in Sgt. Joe Friday's quest for "just the facts, ma'am."
Take for instance the assertions regarding the middle and working classes. The percentage of union employees in the work force is about 12 percent (7 percent in trade and labor unions), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; accordingly, by what yardstick does one measure the other 88 percent of employees? Are we to believe that the unions hold a monopoly on the "working and middle classes" — the remainder of us divided among the fat-cat employers, management and the poor wretches not protected by unions?
Additionally, the notion pushed by the unions and such media luminaries as The New York Times' Paul Krugman that the legislation denies collective bargaining to public service employees is simply not true. Their right to bargain collectively for wages remains intact: The only points removed from the bargaining table were the destructive pension and health care burdens that have proven fiscally unsustainable in New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois.
I am not anti-union per se — the benefits accruing to workers over the past 100 years or so are well documented. However, I am convinced unions' value has eroded naturally over time. This trend is evidenced in the decline in union workers in the labor force from a 1954 high of 39.2 percent to approximately 7 percent today. The only growth is in the public-employee unions.
There is a world of difference between the private and the public sectors. In the private sector, both labor and capital have skin in the game. While the union strives for the best deal possible for its members, the bargaining is done with the realization on both sides that there is a point at which the company, the store, the mine et al. will cease to exist — thus no more union and no more jobs.
This situation does not exist in the public-employee unions for the simple reason that the public sector is not a free market but rather a government-imposed monopoly. Public-employee unions are funded entirely by taxpayers — consequently, they feed at the government trough, negotiating solely with those whom they seek to or have elected. From 1990 to 2010, the public-sector unions contributed more than $180 million to Democrats and nearly $18 million to Republicans.
Accordingly, if you feel you must support public-sector unions, do so with open eyes and mind. The public pension-plan deficits of California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois threaten those states with bankruptcy.
One of our most remembered and least conservative presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had this to say: "All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." He was echoed by AFL-CIO President George Meany, who observed it was impossible to bargain collectively with the government.
Can we really afford the administration's proposed unionization of the Transportation Security Administration?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.