Friday, April 1, 2011

Shouldn't Firefighters Receive Fair Pay and Pensions?

....and benefits.
(c) 2011 by Tom King 

Union rally for so-called "Free Choice" law prohibiting secret ballot elections on unionization
There are friends and loved ones I count on to sound the proverbial B.S. alert when the press and PR guys have done their work exceptionally well. Someone whose opinion I value asked recently whether people actually believe that firefighters and cops who risk their lives daily in their jobs should be denied fair wages, benefits and pensions. Apparently the spin doctors have convinced good old soft-hearted Americans that the governor of Wisconsin is going to take away the pensions and bennies of cops, teachers and firemen.

You know, when someone has to tell outright lies to people in order to get them on their side, there's something unholy going on - unholy with a capital "U".

I'm not sure who it is that doesn't think firefighters should get benefits or pensions?  The implication is that it's those nasty tea-partiers and the mean people they elected to the statehouse in Wisconsin. Well it's not. Everybody thinks we should pay these guys a fair wage. Where we have a problem is when they start demanding an unfair wage.

I have a real problem with the union bosses that use rank and file union members to strong arm the taxpayer and that's what is happening here. In essence, these thugs are attempting to force taxpayers to pay more than we can afford to feed a badly mismanaged and bloated union bureaucracy. The unions are the problem, not the firefighters, but the unions have hired PR people to do all they can to cloud the issue and manipulate the media coverage. Their purpose is to make it appear that the whole thing is about cheating cops and teachers and firemen out of a fair wage.

"But unions have done so much good!" someone protests.  And that's true. They have helped stop the exploitation of American workers by corrupt robber baron industrialists. No argument there.  But this fight is not about past history. Wisconsin public sector employees are doing quite well thank you very much. The problem is with a bloated union bureaucracy that is never satisfied with what it has.

Any time you create a powerful governing structure, it's only as good as the people who run it.  Unfortunately, power attracts corruption. The problem is that the only reason for a union to exist is to "improve" the lot of the worker. Once the worker is getting a fair shake, the union leadership finds itself looking for a reason to exist. The leadership soon becomes discontent with merely managing the pension funds. They find themselves trying to justify an ever more bloated union bureaucracy and covering up, in many cases, misuse of union funds, malfeasance and even embezzlement. The bosses need to gin up new issues so they can call a strike once in a while, just to prove the leadership is worth what it's being paid.  So, the union bosses encourage an adversarial relationship with the employer and the employer is forced to charge more for his product. As a result, in order to maintain adequate profit levels for their investors, many companies wind up sending their manufacturing jobs overseas. The unions have killed more than one industry that way.

Look unions have done a lot of good where abuses were taking place. The federal government should have been part of protecting workers in the first place, but for too long the powerful leaders in Washington have been taking money from the corporations. Sadly, when the unions came along demanding a fair shake for workers, the politicians merely switched to playing a double game with both sides - one against the other and using the consumer/taxpayer as a cash cow to fund the whole deal.

There comes a point when any organization gains too much power and needs to have its wings clipped by its membership. That takes courage. It's time union members realize that they have a responsibility to the people who buy their goods and services. The problem in Wisconsin is that the public sector unions provide essential services. The consumer of the public sector union's product (the taxpayer) has no choice about purchasing those services anywhere else. With the auto industry, we had a choice of not buying cars that were too expensive or shoddily made. The consumer, by his buying habits, was able to curtail the excesses of both union and corporate fat cats who had to scale back their profit and wage expectations and improve their product in order to survive as an industry. Even then, the feds found a way to charge the taxpayer for cleaning up the mess that the bosses in both the corporations and the unions made over the years.

That's why I'm less than sympathetic with public sector employees. The only way the taxpayer (who consumes public sector services) can withdraw his support of a service he thinks is over-priced is to withdraw from the bargaining table and make it the responsibility of local cities, counties and state governing bodies to set the wages of public sector workers. That is actually a fair way to do that. If employees are unhappy with their wage, they may quit and go to work somewhere else. A city that wants good workers will, in turn, have to pay a competitive rate or workers will go elsewhere to find jobs.

If you don't believe your local public sector employees are getting a fair wage, simply approach the appropriate government body on their behalf. Attend public forums where budgets are discussed and speak up for fair wages for your garbage men, cops and even firefighters. I promise you, you have much more influence with your city council or county commission than you do with union bosses and state bureaucrats, who cut deals behind closed doors and use methods and do things to close deals that you would be apalled at if you knew the details.

Corruption is always an issue when you gather too much power in the hands of too few people. That's what's happened with the public sector union in Wisconsin. The state is in major budget trouble and the union bosses don't care. They would rather destroy the private sector economy through massive taxation than to compromise on already over-inflated salary and benefit packages in order to help the state ride out the crisis. The only move for the taxpayer is to elect officials who will take the union bosses out of the wage-setting process. Nobody wants starving firemen, but since they already make twice to three times what I did when I was risking my life daily working with emotionally disturbed kids, I'm not terribly sympathetic. I spent 30 years working in the nonprofit sector doing my best to do good for others. I had knives pointed at my face; two by fours swung at me; I had to restrain and protect large, violent people who wanted to do me harm. I had to deal with 5 to 7 such incidents a day working for not much more than minimum wage while a similar government employee received 2 to 3 times that much as I did with benefits (which I did not get).

The reason for that was that the public sector unions made certain that the state paid private sector agencies, not only less than what they gave to government facilities (about a third), but also only 80 to 90% of what it actually cost to do the job. The nonprofits had to raise the rest themselves rind ways to do the job with volunteers.

Do I wish I had a fat pension? Do I wish I had a guaranteed job making two or three times what the average worker in my town makes? It would certainly be nice, but I chose to follow my career track in non-government public service knowing full well that I was making a sacrifice to do so.

 Public sector and private sector unions are two different creatures. If you're a private sector union and get greedy, I just buy my goods elsewhere. You can't do that with public sector unions. Tell you what. I'll support collective bargaining for teachers when the government institutes a voucher system for schools that allows me to take my kid elsewhere if they aren't doing their jobs.

I can hear the public sector unions howling from here at the mere mention of that idea!

Just one man's opinion...

Tom King

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