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Phil-osophically Speaking - December 31, 2010

Government Unions — The New Leviathan

We have heard about the economic mudslides in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland due to years of unrestrained spending, cheap lending, rising debts, deficits and poor banking practices. Credit ratings in those countries have been downgraded to such depths that they might as well reside in mineshafts. These countries are struggling to pay their bills as interest rates on their existing debts rise.

If not for the rescue efforts of other European nations whose economic fates are tied to the fortunes of these sinking ships of state, these countries would be utterly and ignominiously bankrupt. But before we go tut tutting about such a deplorable state of affairs, let us recall that things are not so great on the other side of the Atlantic either. And that terra firma is us —the good old USA. New York, California, Illinois and even our own Nassau County look more and more like ominous reflections of Greece and Ireland every day.

This should be especially alarming news, for after the midterm elections, there is little appetite for federal bailouts to resuscitate these cash-strapped states. Indeed, the very thought may well have seismic reverberations with taxpayers. After all, last year’s stimulus monies actually consisted of emergency cash transfers in order to help states fend off mass layoffs, Draconian service cuts and mortally draining tax increases.

But after the dust settled, the official unemployment numbers are still trifling with double digits, a flirtation that may turn into a betrothal if stern measures are not taken to countermand it. Belabored by a sluggish economy, the country is as eager for more federal bailouts as it is for another Elliot Spitzer talk show. What our sick economy needs is not another high-priced stimulus program from Washington but enforced austerity. Now I know austerity is a harsh, cold sounding word but these are harsh and bitter economic times and such measures must be directed at the very source of many of our difficulties: government unions.

This won’t be an easy mountain to scale since powerful and vested interests are at stake. When I was running for mayor of Floral Park, the word was out on the street that I was tough on the unions. My opposition gleefully fanned the flames of that canard like a troupe of pyromaniacs delighting in the illusory charms of a self-serving psychosis. I was not tough on unions, but fair and realistic. But this being an election year with union contracts being negotiated, the fires were stoked and a union meeting superintended by leaders of the local CSEA was convened at the American Legion Hall for the purposes of an endorsement.

When I entered the hall with my campaign manager Dennis McEnery, the room was filled with the dyspeptic countenances of the village workforce. Over the years, I was friendly with many of these individuals but campaign rhetoric about my supposed intransigence regarding contract negotiations had apparently circulated with a nearly vindictive adamancy, souring a shared and warm congeniality. Seated in front of the room behind a long table were the CSEA Union leaders from all over the county. They fixed their eyes on me with such moral seriousness that despite my outward bravado, I felt a slight lump congealing in my throat. The questions came in rapid, piston-like succession about my views on labor, employee rights and my future plans in terms of securing a negotiated settlement. I had to answer carefully as not to compromise the integrity of ongoing contract negotiations in a public forum.

Yet, philosophically, I felt at home.  I was a friend of labor, not an enemy, viewing the rise of the labor movement in the late 19th century as a triumph of America’s working class and a ballast to capitalism’s ferocious energies that could, at least in the short run, be inattentive to the needs of blue collar toilers. Moreover, I believed none of the other candidates could match my experience with labor unions. I first joined one at 18, working as a stock boy for a dairy farm on Dutch Broadway in Elmont called Gouz (rhymes with cows) and they paid a generous wage for part-timers, including sending us home with either a gallon of milk or orange juice every day you worked. Working at Gouz six days a week for nearly five years gave my family not only a plentiful supply of Vitamins C and D, but allowed me to pay my entire college tuition without a single loan. You could do that if you stayed local and were, like I was back then, pathologically parsimonious. Or, just “plain cheap,” as my friends and relatives diagnosed my condition ever since I started saving lucre by delivering the Pennysaver flier at age 12.

Still, the union-negotiated hourly wage was (though I still maintain high minimum wages hurts employment especially among the young and unskilled) a real help and I always felt grateful. When I was employed with the Town of Hempstead back in 1981 I joined, unbeknownst to my interviewers at the American Legion, the CSEA Union. During an especially crucial moment, I revealed this fact by dramatically springing from my wallet my CSEA membership card and then deliberately moving from the extreme left of the table to the extreme right displaying it so each one could scan it for themselves. This had been the idea of Dennis McEnery who believed that a little theatre, so long as it is not overdone, can have a salubrious effect while performing on the political stage.

Well, it did. There was a sudden, prolonged pause on the panel, as if one of them had just done something exceedingly embarrassing until, almost on cue, they simultaneously began writing furiously on their yellow legal pads. The realization that, by God, I was actually one of them must have been a little shocking. It might not have been Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech (nothing beats a puppy as a prop) but the CSEA card was the winning card in that it so disarmed the union that they chose not to make an endorsement.

So with my union credentials firmly established as well as my belief in the right of free association, I shall unburden myself on what troubles me about government unions. First, they are bankrupting states and municipalities by demanding exorbitant and lavish benefits. Because the size and scope of state power has dramatically increased, so have the privileges unions enjoy today. Government unions, mind you, is not the organized labor of old, blue-collared factory workers and hard hats, who in the early decades of the last century championed reforms for workers in unsafe, underpaid and dangerous work places. Government offices are safe, clean and often lucrative.

Their enormous leverage and influence is all the more remarkable since public-sector unionism is of relatively recent vintage. FDR recoiled from it like the plague; forswearing government unionization because a government negotiating with a union is not the same thing as a business owner whose livelihood is at stake. In 1959, with the post WWII economic boom at full throttle, Wisconsin became the first state to allow its public employees to unionize and other states soon followed. An executive order by President Kennedy in 1962 permitted federal employees to join unions. Since then union membership in the public sector has skyrocketed and so has its royalties. This year marked the first time union membership in government exceeded that of the private sector; a phenomenon that might not be so terrible if they were not championing more expansive and costly government — but they are.  

You know something is dreadfully out of whack when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that since 2008 (the year of the Great Recession) the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments have gained 590,000 employees. Federal employees, whose employment is insulated from the vicissitudes of economic performance, receive twice the pay and benefits as those in the private sector whose employees are forced to pay for the difference via higher taxes and greater deficits.

It is no secret how things got so out of hand. Politicians crave union support and in return for it they sanction union workers getting higher pay and benefits which results in more union workers and concomitantly more union contributions that can be poured into political campaigns. The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was the largest spender of the 2010 election — an eye-popping $90 million!  

Am I biting the hand that feeds me? Well, we all need to eat but gluttony is something else. It is time to readjust the scales. President Obama proposing a freeze in federal paychecks is a first step, (I would favor the same for employees in state and local governments) but that is where reform should begin, not end. Benefits need to be reworked so that employees contribute more to their pension plans; generous vacation, sick and personal time scaled back and salaries not only temporarily frozen but brought in line with the private sector.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously and infamously known by the acronym TINA (There is no alternative) and here there really is none. States are on the brink of cataclysmic defaults and others will soon follow in their wake if the public-sector-union Leviathan does not trim its sails. It is a fight, both for fiscal sanity and survival that must be fought. As the lady said, “There is no alternative.”