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Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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57 Responses

  1. What, absent unionism, would Welch or Friedersdorf suggest public sector employees do to improve their lives? Or do they just have to take it, to live with less?

    The problem with public sector unions is that they hold a disproportional amount of powe because of the nature of their jobs. Trash collectors, for example, are going to get most of their demands because who wants to deal with all of that trash? Now the counter-argument is going to be that this proves their job is important and they should be compensated accordingly, but our compensation system is not set up that way. Fair? I don’t know if that is a part of this conversation or not.

    Just look at Europe. They have public employee strikes all the time. It is that fear that is bankrupting city governments as they try to keep up with the demands of their employee unions.Report

  2. Avatar Dave says:

    I need to get some thoughts together on this. The libertarian angle seems like an exercise in talking past one another and I think it’s time we went head-to-head.Report

  3. Avatar Dave says:

    By the way, I thought Conor’s suggestion was completely off-the-wall and blatantly unconstitutional.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    My ex went to work for Harrah’s, the huge casino operation. They were anti-union. They taught the concept that businesses get the unions they deserve. So they paid their workers well and treated them fairly. The casino unions were not only helping their members but raising the standards for all.

    I can go along with an argument that in some cases unions could cause to many problems. But I never see any other solution to how the ordinary worker can have any input or protection from being unfairly screwed over. We already have a country where the richest executives seem to think nothing of laying off thousands while signing up for platinum parachutes that leave them with a king’s ransom even when they fail.

    The critics of unions rarely or never seem to want to address the problems that led to the creation of unions. We have tried the country without them. It worked well for rich businessmen.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

      They taught the concept that businesses get the unions they deserve.

      Excellent point!Report

    • It used to be that companies only treated employees fairly when the unions forced them to. Now a lot of non-union companies, mine included, treat employees well primarily out of a desire to keep the union out. So in that sense unions are just as important as they always were and just as effective. They just don’t have the big membership they once did. I often think though that if unions were really sincere about worker rights they would be okay with that.

      I hear the complaints though from a lot of union workers who feel like non-union workers are piggy-backing on them. Auto manufacturers are a good example. Toyota workers arguably make good wages because the UAW went on a lot of strikes to get the wages to that level. On the flip side though the non-union employees can be terminated much more easily and have to earn their promotions through merit rather than just shwoing up for work every day. So it’s a trade-off and ultimately a fair one…I think.Report

      • “It used to be that companies only treated employees fairly when the unions forced them to.”
        That certainly is what the Unions tell you, anyway, isn’t it. Now I know we’ve all read Upton Sinclair and we know what some places were like pre-union. But it’s a priori fallacy to claim that all workers were treated unfairly prior to unions.Report

  5. Public employee unions can be both good and bad – their interests are not always aligned with the public interest and thus can stand in the way of meaningful reform when such reform is necessary.

    Having gotten that out of the way…the standard libertarian response drastically overemphasizes the costs of higher wages paid to public sector unions. Wage negotiations are just one aspect of what public sector unions do. For instance, to speak from personal experience, one of the more common areas for collective bargaining negotiations with firefighters is stuff like equipment (for teachers, I imagine that supply reimbursements, etc., are important). The state’s objective is to keep expenses low so it can spend more on other resources, but the result of this is that public sector employees may lack the resources they believe are necessary to adequately and safely do their jobs.

    In this sense, I wonder if public employee unions may actually act as a check on government power even if they increase spending in a particular field. By that I mean to the extent that a government budget is limited, the existence of unions may force the government to spend $100 million to do 5 things well, instead of doing 10 things poorly and arbitrarily.

    Just thinking aloud here…Report

  6. Avatar mike farmer says:

    From my libertarian understanding, there is no problem with workers joining together for bargaining purposes — my only problem is when regulation empowers the unions to give them an unfair advantage in bargaining. In a free society, workers would be able to bargain, and company owners would be able to hire and fire as they see fit. If the workers have a good plan with which to bargain, and it would hurt the owners to simply fire all the skilled workers who are bargaining for a better position, then agreements can be worked out between management and workers that aren’t one-sided.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to mike farmer says:

      Workers who are too valuable to fire don’t need unions. Most workers don’t do such work that they can’t be replaced. Even if they do have some skills to make them unpleasant to fire, without the support of regulation they would be effectively powerless. The decrease in unions over the last 30 or so years has been a direct result of government policy. Thank you St. Ronnie.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to greginak says:

        Actually, the decrease in the power of unions has been a result of a variety of factors. Membership in private-sector unions has gone through a steady and more-or-less consistent decline ever since Taft-Hartley was passed in the 1950s. Taft-Hartley definitely qualifies as regulation, not de-regulation.

        Globalization has also contributed to union decline, but you can’t really say that globalization was a result of a change in government policy – it was pretty much inevitable once technological advances made it cheap and easy to transport large quantities of goods over vast distances. Robert Reich puts the roots of globalization in the 1960s.

        Also, while getting lunch this afternoon, it occured to me that other factors in union decline may include safety regulations like OSHA. I say this because, as I note above, safety issues are often a major point of collective bargaining. They are a fairly significant incentive for workers to unionize. OSHA more or less eliminates the value of unions to negotiate over many of those safety issues.Report

        • I think you hit the nail on the head with Taft-Hartley and OSHA. They are the primary reasons for union decline. I’ve often thought of unions today as sort of like the civil rights movement. Much of their work is no longer necessary thanks to societal improvements so they end up causing mischief out of a need to feel relevant rather than targeting those small-bore issues which still need attention. To take the analogy a step further, unions currently have some need to clean up their own backyards, sort of like the black community today.Report

  7. Avatar mike farmer says:

    gregniak, why would they fire workers, if the workers are needed and the workers are doing their job, even if they weren’t hired as highly skilled workers. In a competitive market for workers, employers have to offer competitive pay to attract workers — why would the workers need regulation to protect them — perhaps so they can bully the company to pay inflated wages? Who does this help except a handful of workers? Modern industry has developed workplaces which are good working environments and most companies know they have to have good workers to be competitive, so what is the value of unions empowered by government regulations?Report

  8. Avatar James says:

    “You could be excused, reading economic conservatives’ attitudes about unions, for thinking that unions must be a product of some malevolent intelligence bent on destroying our society. ”

    That’s an excellent line. I imagine that plenty of commentators are still nostalgic for the Cold War days. We’ve gotten a new set of boogie-men since, but you can hardly blame the Ayatollahs or Al-Q. for the residual unionization of America’s workforce…Although I’d imagine one or two moonbats have given it a good enough go.Report

  9. Avatar greginak says:

    Because there is rarely a truly competitive market for workers. Especially in times like this there are many workers and few jobs. So there is huge power and risk imbalance. Many types of union jobs are relatively low skill, so there are many people who could do the work. Example: some casinos have unions. Being a blackjack dealer does not require extensive training, so employees can be treated like disposable parts.

    Since health care is unfortunately tied to work in this country some employees can be more vulnerable to being fired if they happen to raise the companies insurance costs. Along with that employees who have children or preexisting conditions are not free to just jump from job to job without risk and considerable expense.

    Do you ever read Dilbert?Report

    • I will agree that many types of union jobs are low-skilled and as a result those workers are most vulnerable to exploitation. But as we know that is a two-way street. I consider the unions to be more complicit than the employers because rather than being honest with their members and telling them to develop more marketable skills, they encourage them to fight for a ‘living wage’. The dirty little secret is that they know a family four will never be able to get by on the paycheck of an low-skilled laborer. But these employees are convinced and stay in these jobs rather than moving on. The unions keep their dues and the workers stagnate.

      I have advocated for a long time that low-skilled unions should partner with trade unions and colleges to funnel employees to them. The low-skiled unions can protect the workers when they are most vulnerable and the trade unions give them training and then (hopefully) better jobs.

      Right now unions catering to low-skilled workers are prolonging their stay at the bottom of the workforce, not helping them move up.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

        But in many union households a good union job can be enough for a family. I’m all for more schooling and training which many unions do push for. I know many of the laborers unions here offer a lot of basic safety classes and various certificate programs to help increase skills. But criticizing unions for not pushing more people up and out of their own unions seems a bit like criticizing them for not doing to enough to stop baldness.Report

        • But criticizing unions for not pushing more people up and out of their own unions seems a bit like criticizing them for not doing to enough to stop baldness…

          If you’re not part of the solution…

          There are plenty of businesses built on high turnover rate. The UPS hub here in Louisville has a very high turnover rate because it’s demanding work and tough hours, but they build turnover into their business model and pay well so they always have people applying for jobs. I would think a inter-union training program would be attractive to low-skilled workers straight out of high school.Report

  10. Avatar Conor Friedersdorf says:

    I’ve written a response to this post here:

    • So “Here’s an idea: outlaw public employee unions.” wasn’t general? Certainly sounded general, Conor.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Conor Friedersdorf says:

      Conor- Do the public employees in Cali contribute to social security? Here in Alaska we don’t. We have a good pension plan but will lose a bit of our SS. That would change a bit of the calculation about how wonderful those pensions are.

      5000 ex-public employees have pensions over 100000!!! I’ll bet you a lot of them are cops or firefighters who generally make a lot of money and get great pensions as a way of compensating them for their harsh jobs.Report

  11. Avatar Herb says:

    Funny how you never hear the anti-union folks complain about unions in pro sports. If a UAW member making $70 an hour is outrageous, then what do you call the no-name 3rd-string scrub making a half million a year on a bottom 5 team?

    Come on, union busters! Get mad at the union that makes all of its members instant millionaires. Or keep harping on the working stiffs if you want.Report

    • Avatar Dave in reply to Herb says:

      Oh? I think you see those things come up when collective bargaining agreements come up for renewal.Report

    • Avatar Matt C in reply to Herb says:

      as i noted also below…unions in sports have had disastrous effects on their respective sports. Ask any 1994 Montreal Expos fan what they think about Donald Fehr…Report

      • Avatar Travis in reply to Matt C says:

        And before the unions existed, team owners raked in gargantuan profits while paying the players a relative pittance.

        A company gets the union it deserves, it would seem.Report

    • Avatar Freddie in reply to Herb says:

      If a UAW member making $70 an hour is outrageous

      Just wanted to say that no UAW members actually make $70/hour. Those numbers are that high only if you include the contribution to their health care plans.Report

  12. Avatar greginak says:

    I’m not particularly disagreeing about having more training programs especially ones aimed at kids not going to college. Unions can do and do some of those things. But every org has a mission to focus on and limited resources.

    UPS builds high turnover into their business model. Okay, some jobs are always bound to be high turnover jobs. But a company planning on high turnover doesn’t sound committed to training and keeping employees or seeing them as more then replaceable cogs.Report

  13. Avatar Travis says:

    I’ll acknowledge that one union in California in particular has a pernicious influence on state politics: the prison guards’ union.

    Prison guards in this state are wildly overpaid, and spend millions of dollars to make sure absolutely nothing gets done to reform California’s out-of-control corrections system. They push needlessly punitive laws and fearmongering initiatives designed to assure that the state’s prison-industrial complex continues to grow at a rapid pace, despite mounting evidence that it’s fundamentally broken.

    That said, the solution is not to outlaw unions, but to build a political consensus that opposes their position.Report

  14. Avatar Matt C says:

    What, absent unionism, would Welch or Friedersdorf suggest public sector employees do to improve their lives? Or do they just have to take it, to live with less?

    Freddie – your whole post is marred by the assumption that without unions, people would automatically have significantly worse living standards – this is accented best by the phrase above “take it.” (In most normal discourse, the phrase “take it” is also followed by the phrase “or leave it.”) The statistics on unionization in America of course refute your primary theory – that absent unionism, workers have no means to increase their income, benefits, quality-fo-life, etc. In 2008, 12.4% of workers were members of a union. I guess that means the remaining 87.6% of us are all just “taking it,” right?

    Here is a key stat I would also like you to explain (from

    Government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private sector employees.

    Assuming that private sector employees are all out to get rich, and public employees are devoted to “service” – AND assuming your theory that unions increase wages/benefits/standards-of-living for workers – why does the relationship to government jobs and unionization I reference above exist?Report

  15. Avatar Herb says:

    This is not really germaine to your comment, Matt C, but here’s another stat for ya:

    “In 2008, 100% of players in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL were members of a union. “Report

    • Avatar Matt C in reply to Herb says:

      And if you are a baseball fan, you know just how many fans, and how much money, their union cost the game…baseball has one of the most powerful unions in the country (not politically speaking, but in terms of its bargaining power)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Matt C says:

        I am one of the casualties of the 2nd strike. I used to listen to games on the radio… then, after the first strike, I made a point to check the box scores in the paper.

        That said, I totally understand why unions exist and why people join them.Report

  16. Avatar greginak says:

    The players got chump change from the owners until they had a union. Is there really any disagreement about how little of the profits the players used to get. And how can the union be held solely responsible for the strikes? Were the owners not around when that went down.Report

    • Avatar Herb in reply to greginak says:

      My point about the sports unions is that they are never mentioned in most anti-union critiques. Teachers, autoworkers, grocery clerks, these guys bear the brunt of criticism.

      I guess it’s a version of “weak manning” in the sense that the little guy – with his blue collar and low hourly wage – gets to take the heat, while the fact that members of sports unions get paid CEO money is hardly even acknowledged.

      It’s just weird.Report

  17. Avatar Katherine says:

    I’m of the view that unions are a necessary counter to the power of employers to ensure that workers get paid decently; the decrease in living standards (in some regards, such as the ability of a family to live off the wages of one blue-collar worker) as unions have been broken, and the giant disparity between the salaries of CEOs on the one hand and people who actually work on the other, suggests that’s correct.

    The argument regarding public-sector unions that I’ve heard is that while in the private sector, unions have the incentive to keep their demands at a level that avoids bankrupting the company, in the public sector there isn’t any such limit on the wage and benefit increases unions can ask for. Considering that public sector wages typically don’t even keep pace with inflation, suggesting unions aren’t being unreasonable, that argument doesn’t strike me as a particularly strong one.

    It always amazes me that conservatives are so prone to suggest union workers get paid for showing up and doing nothing, while they aren’t nearly as bothered by corporate CEOs getting paid hundreds as times as much for showing up and doing nothing (or running their companies into the ground).Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Katherine says:

      Katherine, public sector jobs are universally lower paid than equivalent private sector positions. The reasons are myriad but major ones are that public sector positions are secure (if you want lifetime employment get a government job) and that management in the public sector is strongly disinclined to take financial steps to retain personnel (culturally the departure of an individual is seen as an opportunity to move everyone below them a step up the chain rather than a genuine loss). Also promotions are very strongly based on time served rather than necessarily on merit. Finally management in the public sector is significantly less in control of the finances of their department than in the private sector so while unions can demand more pay the managers are literally unable to accede to the unions wishes.

      I’d submit that some of the deleterious effects of public sector unions are:
      A strong weakening of the public agency’s already weak willingness to terminate poorly performing or redundant employees.

      The creation of a powerful political influence (the union) intent on maintaining to magnifying the status quoe (see Prison Guards Unions advocating for strict sentencing for instance) or fighting against beneficial changes to public service sectors. (Which magnifies the public sectors existing inclination to eternally grow and bloat inefficiently.)

      A distinct lack of benefit from membership: I can’t think of many ways that public employees gain by unionization. Job security, working conditions and so on are almost inherent in the nature of public sector employment.Report

      • Avatar Brian Begley in reply to North says:

        One way that the unions are (in theory, if not in practice) useful to public employees is that they protect against political whim. For example, in the current California situation, the union has been unable to prevent the 15-20% pay cut, but may be preventing more severe cuts. Without a union, I can certainly imagine the governor calling for a 50% pay cut. That would be much more popular with the average citizen than cutting programs or raising taxes, but wouldn’t benefit the state in the long run. People capable of working in the private sector would leave, and the dregs would remain, soaking up (admittedly smaller) paychecks.

        It is also possible that the union helps mitigate against cronyism.

        I guess my question is:
        If you remove the public employee union, what factors create the “inherent” nature of public sector employment.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Brian Begley says:

          I’d be happy to tackle your question Brian.

          I defined breifly the characteristics of public sector employees as good job security and good working conditions. I’d submit that the public sector is naturally inclined towards these by nature. Terminating employment and cutting benefits to the public tend to run hand in hand. Either elected officials or top beurocratic officals who must answer directly to an elected official head the various departments of the public sector. Barring a severe financial crises (and note how so far no significant cuts have occurred even in California’s remarkable budget disaster) the public as a whole is amiable to budget cuts and program elimination as a concept but howls to high heaven when any specific program is targeted. The general benefit to the populace as a whole is outweighed by the specific loss to the beneficiaries and government employees that occurs when a program is eliminated. Thus an elected official achieves only nebulous positive results from eliminating or reducing programs while earning himself dedicated enemies and concrete negative election issues. The downside of downsizing thus outweighs the benefits in the mind of elected officials and so they are naturally cut programs. With no pressure from above there is no pressure at all for mid level management to cut programs or fire employees. Why would you? Firing people is not pleasant and by downsizing you eliminate opportunities for empire building and give your rivals in the bureaucracy excuses to poach your budget. Absent external pressure for cost savings or expense reduction the natural tendency of the public sector is towards comfortable job security.

          This same factor explains workplace conditions. It has been my experience that the public sector has less physical distance between the people who are in charge of workplace conditions and the front line workers. Politicians and management are naturally inclined to maintain generally good working conditions. What reason would they have not to? Unhappy employees will merely cause them trouble. There’s no force driving them to mistreat their workers and they’re quite inclined to maintain good working conditions, most of them are working near by. Finally there’s limited cost restrictions. Private sector unions are at least accidentally aware that excessive demands run the danger of putting themselves out of work. Indeed, dissolution of the host company is pretty much the only way Unions seem to vanish now. California aside, in general governments are not in the business of going out of business so the unions become almost like a non-productive permanent addition to government.

          So I submit that the benefits that unions produce from the private sector are inherent to the public sector. I am by no means anti union; in fact I have deep historical love for them and respect their present role even if it’s only as a cudgel. But I feel that they are redundant to the public sector for the most part and yield more harm than good. I don’t know if they should be flat out banned but I’d certainly think their power should be strongly curtailed in any public sector areas where they aren’t representing people in genuinely hazardous or strenuous jobs. So nurses and firefighter and policemen’s unions yes. White collar welfare adjustment administrator clerks unions, no.Report

        • Avatar Kyle in reply to Brian Begley says:

          It is also possible that the union helps mitigate against cronyism.

          Care to elaborate on that?Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to North says:

        Katherine, public sector jobs are universally lower paid than equivalent private sector positions. The reasons are myriad but major ones are that public sector positions are secure (if you want lifetime employment get a government job) and that management in the public sector is strongly disinclined to take financial steps to retain personnel (culturally the departure of an individual is seen as an opportunity to move everyone below them a step up the chain rather than a genuine loss).

        Well that’s just false. Teacher salaries in public schools consistently outpace their private counterparts. One comparison between non-sectarian schools and public schools places private teacher salaries at 78% of public and (after 12 years) peaking at 92% of their public counterparts. Moreover, in California (2nd highest average teacher salaries in the nation) real increases in wages were 8.6% over ten years from 94-95 to 04-05. To be fair, 28 states saw real declines but others saw increases like North Carolina 8.5% and Louisiana 13.6%.

        Moreover, while in individual cases there may be less resolve/ability to use salary increases to retain personnel, that doesn’t preclude retention as a consideration in contract negotiations/renegotiations.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Kyle says:

          Kyle, the teacher example is a slightly complicated one because teachers are only pair for 2/3rds of a year and have to cover a great deal of special work outside of normal working hours. I’m not an expert on the subject but I know that a lot of people on both sides can escalate into vigerously spirited debates on the actual pay of public teachers vs private sector teachers.

          That specific subject aside I’d add that Teachers are a very small portion of the public sector. They’re outnumbered by beurocrats in the Dept of Education alone which doesn’t even count the legions of middle managers, accountants and other public servants elsewhere who are to my knowledge paid significantly less than the closest equivalents in the private sector.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to North says:

            To address your points with facts.

            Yes, teachers work 2/3 of the year but many districts offer the option of reapportioning monthly pay for 10 months or 12. Additionally, they’re salaried professionals so the avg. 9-5 workday is about as conceptual for teachers as it is for lawyers. Teachers just can’t bill by the hour.

            I haven’t heard, read, or seen an argument on which pays teachers more public or private. Pro-Publics point to higher pay to laud the unions and “better working conditions.” Pro-privates point to the fact that people are willing to accept less money to work outside of public schools and don’t have the same recruitment issues as public. They both agree that private school teachers are paid less than public counterparts because…well that’s reality. They argue that other things matter…

            As for your second paragraph you’re wrong on both counts. Teachers are neither a small portion of the public sector nor outnumbered by bureaucrats.

            Nationally, there are roughly 4 million teachers, special ed excepted, compared to only 4,000 employees @ ED, which is the smallest of the executive departments by more than a factor of two.

            In the states, K-12 employment accounts for the largest # of public employees. In California (which has the 5th lowest ration of k-12 employment in the nation), there are 110,085 employees, representing a full third of all state employees. Their pay accounts for the single largest bloc of public employee salaries. The second largest belongs to higher education employees, and after education, the next highest number of employees/amount of pay belongs to the department of corrections which is less than half that of K-12 education.

            Now I’m using k-12 because it’s a more reliable grouping but the vast majority of employees in k-12 education are full time teachers and teacher pay is often among if not the highest single non-construction expenditure for school districts.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Kyle says:

              Well thank you for the additional info Kyle. Being as I don’t have a dog (or the expertise) in the debate of private vs public pay I’m not qualified to argue it with you. I’ll conceed then that a significant portion of that 1/3rd then may well be better paid than private sector equivalents. So I shall peddle back my initial statement to merely that -most- public sector employees are paid less than their private sector equivalents.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Katherine says:

      The argument that public employee unions don’t have to worry about company bankruptcy is stronger than you give it credit for.

      If you look at wages and inflation, sure you can say unions aren’t being unreasonable, however, compensation is more than wages. It includes vacation, paid vacation, benefits, pensions, etc… So, in that sense even if real wages are stagnant or slightly declining, those gains can, might, and are made up by the absorbed cost of benefits and guaranteed pensions offered public employees.

      The next point where it matters is that state budgets at least start as zero sum. More money for fire comes from hospitals. More money for roads comes from education. More money for prisons comes from parks and recreation. When those political battles are unresolved, then the sum changes and that’s a bargaining chip that private unions don’t have. They can’t force their employers to simply increase revenue – like public unions – and then provide the political (or other) muscle to back it up.

      My experience with this is from the exaggerated state of California where certainly a lot of other issues contribute to our governmental dysfunction. However, the contributions of the pubic unions to our current situation are incontrovertible, if not often overstated.

      It shouldn’t shock you that conservatives are ok with that example. Their concern isn’t with who’s getting paid what to do nothing. That’s irrelevant. Conservatives are quite clear that inequality is an acceptable cost of (greater) freedom, freedom they view the unions as impinging upon. Though to complain about do-nothing CEO’s is particularly uncharitable.Report

  18. Avatar North says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something Freddie but you and Welch seem to be talking past each other. Or at least you are talking past him. His beef seems concerned primarily with public sector unions and in defense of them you have written a defense of unionism in general.

    Public sector unions specifically, in my view, magnify the negative parasitic components of unionism while the positive life improving components of unionism are somewhat redundant or moot in public sector positions.

    The primary problem, as I see it, in public service unions is that the balance of union/management is skewed. In the private enterprise the balance is unions versus management which answers to profit motivated directors/shareholders. In the public sector the management answers to elected officials whose primary interest is image/popularity leading to re-election. Public sector Unions as large groups of organized highly motivated individuals are usually able to overcome the inertia of the generally disinterested public at large and can very strongly influence elected officials. What this amounts to is the unions being able to virtually give themselves pay raises and fight downsizing or changes (even changes that would be beneficial to the public at large). So public sector unions can have strong negative effects while their positive effects are mostly redundant to the public field (arbitration of termination, improvement of working conditions, job stability etc…)Report