Newsletter: Why Municipal Unions?

May 31, 2014

(For the use of the membership only) 

A POINTED EXCHANGE during a recent council meeting in my hometown served to demarcate the two sides of what will be a statewide, city-by-city debate over municipal collective-bargaining. And it did so without emotionalism, ideology or self-serving posture.

The flow of the argument forced the council to see the issue through the eyes of the only people who really matter — the city’s most productive employees.

It started when a councilman asked a particularly tough and complex question: Was it a good idea to outsource managerial control to a third party (a union), whose interest might be independent of, or even adverse to, the public interest, especially when government is being used to create an artificial labor monopoly?

A lawyer for the union sidestepped by asking — reflexively, some thought — whether it was a good idea to attack city workers.

So there it sat on the council table, the defining question: Would city workers be hurt without a public-sector union? And if so, would all workers be hurt or just certain workers? And if only certain workers, which ones?

Ryan Cummins, a former appropriations chairman on the Terre Haute Common Council, likes to turn such questions on their head. It is a city’s resignation to collective bargaining that hurts its employees, he says, and it hurts the productive employees most, both now and in the future.

Cummins, who writes and speaks on this topic for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, prefaces his presentations by saying that “the sky should be the limit” on any public employee’s salary. Indeed, in some parts of the world, master teachers in government schools earn six-figure checks.

“Every government employee should be competing with every other employee for tax dollars,” Cummins says. “What a police officer must accomplish is different from a firefighter; their compensation should reflect what they do and to what standard.”

As Cummins would have it, when the time comes to review compensation, the individual or group making the strongest commitment to increasing standards, to greater efficiencies, to stronger productivity, should be compensated more. The individuals or groups unable to make such a commitment should expect to see their compensation unchanged or even reduced.

In sum, city employees win with potentially higher compensation while citizens win with more value for their tax dollars.

Workers in public-sector unions, in contrast to those in private-sector unions, have no such advantage. They are denied the rewards of productivity by the leveling mechanism of politically delineated rules. They work at the proverbial Red Banner Tractor Factory, where all parts and workers are treated as if they were interchangeable.

The folly of such an arrangement would be obvious if it weren’t so politically incorrect to say aloud: This type of union makes its money off the marginal worker; that is, the one who could not cut a better deal for himself on the basis of standards, efficiency, productivity and commitment. It is this worker whom the union leadership serves, not the more productive one.

The management distortion is aggravated when public-sector unions gain influence over mayors and councilmen whose jobs should be the efficient provision of public services. It is at that point that they cease to be unions and become political machines.

There is a last consideration: Where mandatory collective bargaining takes hold, it is the marginal employee who is encouraged while the productive employee is discouraged. If it weren’t for individual work ethic, sense of duty and personal loyalty, the worst would stay and the best would eventually leave.

Most Indiana cities can credit only luck that they have municipal workers, police and firefighters guided by those character traits. Otherwise, mediocrity would rule.

That wouldn’t matter to the union leader, or to the hired mouthpiece, or to the pandering councilman or to the pensioned sluggard. But it would matter to the productive city worker — and it should matter to us.

— Craig Ladwig

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