Hi­er­ar­chy within unions pro­motes wage in­equal­ity

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - From the right Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Shlaes is a Bloomberg View colum­nist and the di­rec­tor of the Four Per­cent Growth Project at the Bush In­sti­tute; ami­tysh­laes@hot­mail.com. Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day


was the main sen­ti­ment of trav­el­ers who planned to pass through John F. Kennedy In­ter­na­tional Air­port in New York when se­cu­rity work­ers there can­celed the threat of a Christ­mas­time strike.

Yet two trou­bling ques­tions linger. The first in­volves the air­port work­ers’ spe­cific griev­ances. They com­plained of mak­ing only $8 an hour. Why so low, you won­der, es­pe­cially com­pared with what union work­ers in se­cu­rity-re­lated jobs get. The guards, hired by the con­trac­tor Air Serv Corp., were so an­gry that one of them even ex­pressed a warn­ing that those in safety fields of­ten don’t make ex­plicit: that a la­bor ac­tion could com­pro­mise the pub­lic’s se­cu­rity. “They will be com­pletely un­safe,” said the guard, Prince Jack­son.

The sec­ond ques­tion is why the na­tion now con­fronts the prospect of more la­bor trou­ble that could in­con­ve­nience the pub­lic, or pos­si­bly jeop­ar­dize safety, whether in Cam­den, N.J., where fire­men are warn­ing of the dan­ger of clos­ing en­gine com­pa­nies, or in Long Beach, Calif., where a cler­i­cal em­ploy­ees’ strike de­layed the move­ment of goods worth $1 bil­lion a day in a re­cent work stop­page.

The an­swer to both ques­tions lies in the fail­ure of an old grand bargain made in the very name of safety.

In the early days of the la­bor move­ment, the idea of pub­lic-sec­tor unions seemed ab­surd to trade unions and gov­ern­ments. Calvin Coolidge, as Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor, led in the fir­ing of po­lice­men af­ter ri­ots that took place dur­ing a la­bor walk­out. The fu­ture pres­i­dent said, “There is no right to strike against the pub­lic safety.”

Even Franklin Roo­sevelt, the fa­ther of our most ag­gres­sive la­bor law, the Wag­ner Act, drew the line at public­sec­tor unions.

“A strike of pub­lic em­ploy­ees man­i­fests noth­ing less than an in­tent on their part to ob­struct or pre­vent the op­er­a­tions of government un­til their de­mands are sat­is­fied.”

Other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers iden­ti­fied more specif­i­cally what was out of bal­ance about a pub­lic-sec­tor union and a government em­ployee ne­go­ti­at­ing at a ta­ble. The pub­lic-em­ployee rep­re­sen­ta­tives were paid by the unions, and thus be­holden to them. But the politi­cians across the ta­ble were also be­holden to unions, for their cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions or votes. The in­ter­ests of the av­er­age non-union Amer­i­can, the pub­lic, were not rep­re­sented.

Grad­u­ally, how­ever, the con­cept of pub­lic-sec­tor unions be­came ac­cepted.

Kath­leen Parker

David Brooks

Ross Douthat

Ramesh Ponnuru

In 1962, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der af­firm­ing the rights of fed­eral work­ers to bargain col­lec­tively. Work­ers ex­er­cised those rights, as those who lived through the dis­rup­tive school strikes in New York or other pub­lic-sec­tor strikes re­call.

Even­tu­ally a bargain was struck, and it, too, in­volved safety. Pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees would re­duce dis­rup­tion at schools, po­lice sta­tions and fire sta­tions. They wouldn’t leave cities to riot. And the government em­ploy­ers, whether fed­eral, state, city or town, would pay them a pre­mium for that: a lit­tle more pay, a lit­tle ex­tra over­time, more job se­cu­rity, the kind of safety we think of day to day.

This bargain ap­peared to work. The strikes abated. Yet the bargain even­tu­ally caused the very re­sult the skep­ti­cal com­men­ta­tors had pre­dicted years be­fore. Politi­cians in of­fice and pub­lic-sec­tor union of­fi­cials both had an in­ter­est in push­ing com­pen­sa­tion to the heavens.

The even­tual re­sult, as a Bloomberg News se­ries has de­tailed, was ab­surdly high pack­ages for pub­lic em­ploy­ees. The Port Author­ity of New York and New Jersey, which man­ages JFK Air­port, has 13 em­ployee unions. Some long­time of­fi­cials of those unions are paid more than $200,000 a year each. In the mean­time, the econ­omy grew far more slowly than pre­dicted, ren­der­ing such pay­ments pro­hib­i­tive.

One con­se­quence has been to di­vide work­ers into two classes. First are the older work­ers who en­joy the sweet­heart deals. The sec­ond class con­sists of the work­ers hired more re­cently, whether in unions or out­side of them, of­ten through con­trac­tors. Cash-poor government of­fices such as the Port Author­ity turn to com­pa­nies such as Air Serv be­cause the Air Servs will pay less, those $8-an-hour wages, and off­set some of the egre­gious la­bor costs gen­er­ated by top union jobs.

In short, the real op­po­nent of the un­der­paid, ben­e­fit-poor new­bie is not the em­ployer. It is fel­low over­paid work­ers. The tax­payer can “af­ford” to pay pub­lic-sec­tor wages higher than $8 an hour, but not $200,000 a year. What this Christ­mas story tells us is that the grand bargain de­mands a rewrite. Af­ter all, as the fu­ri­ous se­cu­rity guard’s state­ment re­minds us, the bargain no longer func­tions — and we may not be safe.

Amity Shlaes Charles Krautham­mer

Ge­orge Will

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