Current Comment

Union Busting

As the Wall-Street-led, job-killing recession continues to claim victims, states and municipalities are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of workers. No doubt, contracts drafted in more prosperous times that allowed civil servants to retire after 20 years and collect pensions and benefits for another 40 or 50 years are a burden and will need to be restructured. But ending the right of unions to collective bargaining is a nuclear option that will destroy an essential right and undercut chances for long-term prosperity.

Busting unions, however, is exactly what several governors, with Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in the lead, are trying to do. Beyond demands for sacrifices from state workers to balance budgets, Governor Walker has proposed ending the right of public employees’ unions to bargain collectively. Union members are ready to pay more toward health care and accept their fair share of budget cuts. But at a time of heightened inequality, curtailing an essential union right would be a crippling blow not only to labor but to the American middle class. After all, by establishing wage and benefit standards unions have helped establish standards not just for their members but for whole sectors of the economy.


Since the Reagan administration, the middle class has shared very little in the nation’s increased prosperity. The common good demands that burdens and benefits of public life be shared fairly. It is more than right that the businesses and individuals whose profits swelled during those lost years be required to pay higher taxes for the upkeep of the quality of American life and its future.

Signs of Something Greater

Something dramatic happened in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in late February. As part of the Vatican’s investigation into the clerical abuse scandals in Ireland, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin presided at a “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance,” intended to express the church’s sorrow and regret for the abuse of children by priests. Before the Mass both archbishops prostrated themselves before the altar in a penitential gesture that evoked the Good Friday liturgy. During the Mass they washed the feet of several victims of abuse, an action usually seen only on Holy Thursday.

In Catholic life symbols matter; they point to something greater than what can be grasped by the senses alone. Ashes are more than burnt matter; water is more than a liquid; a flame is more than fire. So as the church confronts the legacy of sexual abuse, symbolic gestures are needed. They can speak to the Catholic imagination as much as words do. Many people have waited a long time to see such public acts of contrition; and the archbishops’ gestures should be taken as a model for church leaders in the United States. But as both archbishops have indicated, symbols are not enough; for symbols to be made “real,” they must be matched by action. Archbishop Martin has worked diligently for change in his church and during the Mass thanked victims for not remaining silent. “I appeal to you to continue to speak out,” he said. “There is still a long path to journey in honesty before we can truly merit forgiveness.” Part of that journey will be listening, part of it symbolic actions; most of it will be real reform.

A Dirty Word

Of all the dirty words tossed around Washington these days perhaps none is said with more distaste than earmarks. President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, vowed to veto any bill with earmarks, and now both houses of Congress have approved a two-year ban. Earmarks have become synonymous with pork-barrel spending, because the money is often directed to Congressional districts sub rosa, without an opportunity for public review.

The system is flawed, to be sure, and introducing more transparency would help put an end to federally funded boondoggles. (See “Nowhere, Bridge to.”) Yet should earmarks ultimately be eliminated altogether? Earmarks have played a crucial role in buoying local economies. Without them, for example, Hawaii would lag far behind other states on a range of economic indicators. Louisiana, too, benefited from federal earmarks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In other parts of the country, earmarks have built roads and hospitals. And they have created jobs, no small matter in the current economic climate.

Problems do exist: the House Appropriations Committee, for example, has historically exercised far too much control over where federal monies are spent. Yet one of Congress’s key roles is to appropriate money: the Constitution says so. A reform of the earmark system, rather than its complete abolition, seems the wiser route—a process already begun by Congressional Democrats before they reluctantly agreed to the ban. When the subject comes up again for debate, supporters might point to two high-profile initiatives that began as earmarks: the Human Genome Project and the nutrition program known as WIC.

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C Walter Mattingly
7 years 10 months ago

If America is strongly supportive of collective bargaining for public employee unions, perhaps it should turn its critical focus to someone who is far more disruptive of such rights than the Governor is here proposing. President Obama has just unilaterally imposed a two year freeze of all federal public employee wages. This was done without union approval.  He also does not allow any CB rights whatsoever to the great majority of federal workers. While he has inherited this antipathy for the right to collective bargaining and striking by federal employees from FDR and all ensuing presidents, it continues to this day. If he thinks this is unconscionable, why has he not promoted a bill to end this situation rather than utilize his power to freeze wages unilaterally? He had two years with sizeable majorities in both houses to do so. Governor Walker's bill severely limits collective bargaining for some groups while not affecting others. President Obama is far more complete in the possession and utilization of tools for the prohibition of collective bargaining for public employees which America here deems an "essential human right" than Gov Walker would be under his proposals.
To call Gov Walker's bill union busting involves a bit of hyperbole, but not more than to call the recent activities of certain public labor unions treasury busting, with their Cadillac benefits often provided by politicians they financed, or student busting by teachers' unions who protect the poor senior teacher at the expense of the good newer one, or who throw students under the bus by putting self-interest ahead of that of the student by having phony sick-ins to close the schools and who thereby teach children lying rather than integrity and flaunting laws and obligations in place of responsible citizenship. The fears of public civil disruption of the people's business for the purpose of self-interested gains is taking place, just as FDR prophetically predicted it would.
The problems these groups are having is by no means restricted to republicans. A bigger problem are democrats such as Cuomo of New York. Biggest of all is the realization by the American people that public unions have overreached in their self-interest to the extent that they can be accused of violating the common good. That is a main reason why such as Gov Walker, Gov Cuomo, and Gov Christie have been elected by the people, to put a stop to a runaway gravy train.

Andrew Russell
7 years 10 months ago
To say that public servants have been riding the "gravy train" as Mr. Mattingly does is misleading at best.  Public servants like teachers, police, prison guards, librarians, etc. have been giving conscesions every year.  They have accepted lower wages in previous negotiations in exchange for maintaining benefits.  Any raise in total compensation (wages + benefits) was strictly guided by state law in Wisconsin until just a year ago.  When the economy boomed, they received cost of living raises, when the economy stalled they received no raises.  Now, their total compensation will decrease.  Lost in the summary by the editors, is the price that the poor will pay in Gov. Walkers budget; there will be huge decreases in aide to children and families for health care, food, and transportation, hundreds of millions in lost funds for federally funded projects in WI, and huge tax breaks for the wealthy. 

Gov. Walker's proposed budget, approved by all but a handful of Rebublicans in the Assembly is an injustice which thankfully, the Wisconsin Bishops have argued against. 
7 years 10 months ago
The problem is that in many states the Governor and Legislators are "pro-union" and thus there is no "collective bargaining".  Bargaining implies that there are two sides.  In these states no one represents the people at the bargaining table.
7 years 10 months ago
Despite their willing monetary concessions, Gov. Walker wants more - it is union busting as pay back for the unions supporting his opponent and supported  by big moneyers like the Koch brothers..
The so called"gravy train" Mr. Matingly (who often blogs here from the right) is another semantic and shows litle to no aptpreciation of the many good works public servants do (and I mention especially teachers, who are getting little thanks due to the PR on unions now) for which their compensation is hardly major enrichment.
I often wonder how hard up their critics are.
Helen Deines
7 years 10 months ago
When I read about the "union busters," I think of those most dependent of the services of public employees-poor children, persons who are homeless, persons who suffer from chronic physical and mental illness, families experiencing extended periods of unemployment.  These individuals and families cannot "buy their way out" of the public service system as can more affluent citizens who so arrogantly criticize anything that is provided by government.  I wonder if any of these wealthy folks have ever come to love and respect a janitor or a guard who worked so hard for so little?  Have they ever experienced the gift of a public school teacher who helps a homeless child succeed in college, or in the trades for that matter?  Have they so lost touch with the virtue of solidarity that they cannot feel with the joys and sorrows of their neighbors, the ones we are to love?
7 years 10 months ago

Encanting "part listening", "part symbolic action", "most of it real reform", when mixed together will add up to thin soup. When will priests talk out about the necessity for married lives, as in the Eastern Rite churches which, as far as I can tell, have not had the Roman problem of ravishing children? What is it about sex that so bedevils the Roman Catholic Church? Is there something about the total male population of seminaries, orders, the diocesan clergy, and all the rest of the scene, that attracts men with a pious desire to wear cassocks and surplices? As an Irishman, I can readily understand Englishmen struggling against the English Disease, but surely not Italians and the rest of the international crew of clerical stumblers.

Michael Appleton
7 years 10 months ago
Mr. Mattingly's comments promote several myths. The first is that the right to collective bargaining is a questionable claim supported only by liberals and publications like "America." I suggest that he might benefit from reviewing the position of the Church for the past 100-plus years. A good start would be "Rerum Novarum."

Second, he tosses out the phrase "Cadillac benefits" to suggest that the guy who picks up his garbage each morning is hosing the poor taxpayers. Whatever benefits the garbage man receives is pursuant to a contract, not taxpayer extortion. We have seen frequent instances in which better benefits have been accepted by union members in lieu of pay increases. Now we simply desire to renege on the contract because either the promises were illusory when made (i.e., fraudulent) or because adequate funds were never set aside. Yet the same people pillorying the unions angrily invoked the "sanctity" of contract when it was suggested that bank and investment firms receiving bailout funds consider eliminating executive bonuses in the millions. This reminds me of the joke currently making the rounds about the Tea Party member, the public employee and the wealthy investor who walk up to a table containing a box with a dozen donuts. The investor takes eleven of them, turns to the Tea Party member, and says, "Be careful, that public employee is about to take your donut."

Finally, Mr. Mattingly pulls out the tiresome "gravy train" myth. We are all familiar with the simple and undeniable facts that middle class income has stagnated over the past 30 years and that wealth in this country has become concentrated in the top few percent of the population at levels not seen since prior to the Great Depression. That may well be a function of overreaching, but unions are not the culprit.

The right wing, including the religious right, has vigorously criticized the idea of social justice as a euphemism for socialism. The result is the increasingly popular, and morally bankrupt, merger of the social Darwinism of Ayn Rand with the prosperity theology of evangelical conservatives to produce the idea that wealth is proof of righteousness and carries no obligations to the society at large.

The truth is that we are all in this together. That means that budgets should not be balanced on the backs of working people and those who already have nothing but what we can provide them. It means that those who have more must sometimes be required to contribute more through increased taxation. "The whole idea of compassion," according to Thomas Merton, "is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another." 

C Walter Mattingly
7 years 10 months ago

Mike, in the first instance I find no place where the Church would support unions or any other special interest group for actions contrary to the common good. That is what many Americans believe, i.e., unions are protecting grossly incompetent teachers from being fired (I recommend to you "The Rubber Room" to see what Cuomo is fighting against in New York) as well as bloated benefits that harm the state treasuries. And when teachers in Wisconsin get 300% greater benefits than their private counterpart, it is not hard to spot a privileged imbalance.
Secondly, I did not invent or throw in the term "Cadillac benefits." President Obama introduced that term when he attempted to subject very high, deluxe insurance benefits to taxation. His plan was basically defeated by opponents raising the exempt amount so high that it became meaningless and pays almost nothing for Obamacare expenses. Who defeated this plan? Among his party, the unions. Why? They had the greatest amount of what Obama described as the Cadillac plans.
Some may be curious as to why FDR and others thought collective bargaining was fine for private industry but should not be transplated to public employee unions. Here's an analogy. John Murtha and Dick Chaney were criticized, Murtha for his earmarked defense monies for his state going to a company run by his nephew without competitive bidding, Cheney for giving a nobid contract to the company he formerly managed, Halliburton.
Both Murtha and Chaney defended their actions, Murtha by claiming this was the best deal he believed he could get, Chaney by stating that the immediacy of wartime prevented him from putting the contract out for bids. But I'm guessing you and any other readers here are not comfortable with these situations. Why? Because there is no real competing, arms length, adversarial relation established between the two sides. Murtha's nephew had no company to compete with, and Murtha himself might have been and certainly was suspected of having his nephew's interest interfere with the best interest of the treasury. Similarly with Chaney, as Halliburton had no competing bid, and Chaney may have been partial to his former company.
That's similar to what FDR feared would happen if there were public employee collective bargaining. The official overseeing the operation might well have been put in place by the money and the votes of the union he is dealing with, and the official, depending on more money next elections, would give it a sweetheart deal. That wouldn't happen in private industry as there would be an adversarial relation and both sides would understand the general limitations of the other. It would be extraordinary to have a situation where one similar company would offer 300% more benefits than another; it couldn't do so and remain competitive. Yet a few rounds of public unions CB led to just such a result in Wisconsin.
It's almost as if you had a union representative representing the union and a paid union contractor representing the taxpayer. Just doesn't fly. That's why these public employees got 300% the benefits of comparable private workers. And that's why Walker could not leave CB dormant. The union, hand caught in the cookie jar with the huge benefits, offerd to give them up now, but in 4 years or so, with their man back in office, would likely begin the same, we'll call in boondoggle rather than gravy train, all over again.
What saddens me most is the harm and discouragement union leaders have by their actions visited upon the many good teachers who work hard for our children. They did not deserve this loss of professional respect the unions have brought down upon their heads. It is not their fault that the good newer teacher has to be fired while the bad older one retained. they likely cringe when they see that happen. It is not their fault that we are a country which spends very nearly the most per student and yet has the fewest class days per year of the 30 major industrial countries, which ranks 21st in science and 25th in math. We are in and have been in the bottom third of competitor nations for years. How can we expect the education-robbed students of our public school to compete effectively with these sorry results? That is the most immediate and correctible reason the middle class, particularly the lower middle class, has had stagnant wages Mike referred to. Things have to change. Vouchers would be a huge help. And all this resistance to Arne Duncan's and Michelle Rhee's standards has got to fold now. It really has been pulling teeth with a privileged special interest.
I recommend Peggy Noonan's article in today's WSJ for further consideration. Excellent.

7 years 10 months ago
Ms. Noonan's piece on WSJ is disgusting with its mob abalogies and Mr. Mattingly's views are obviously slanted.
Vince Killoran
7 years 10 months ago
"That's similar to what FDR feared would happen if there were public employee collective bargaining."

Oh, good grief-Walter keeps peddling this line.

Even before Gov. Walker tipped his hand with his anti-union comments to the faux Koch he proved his political and ideological objectives by refusing to negotiate with unions that already agreed to concession.  The conservatives have been gunning for public sector unions for years.  Kim Philips-Fein in INVISIBLE HANDS: THE MAKING OF THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT (2009) lays out how conservative foundations and politicians have never really accepted the notion of collective bargaining rights. 
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 10 months ago

Vince, Walter "keeps peddling(sic) this line" about FDR not wanting to transplant CB from the private to the public sector for only two reasons: it is what FDR said, and you and a few others keep trying to sweep that fact under the rug. FDR set the policy and the tone, and even today President Obama has the authority to freeze unilaterally the pay for all federal workers for 2 years. Gov Walker's proposals do not do away with CB, as is the situation for President Obama, who has just exercised those powers without union approval, as he continues to deny CB for federal employees by his actions.
Of course an adversarial relationship exists between unions and employers. That's the situation that exists between the car buyer and the dealership, this restaurant and that restaurant, two employees going for the same raise, two professors competing for the same tenure position, Georgetown vs Marquette. It's an absolutely key aspect of the beneficial impact of free markets and societies worldwide. I would have no problem with collective bargaining between public employee unions and an elected government representative on the other side if I could be assured someone like Chris Christie represented the taxpayer, because I could be assured of an adversarial relationship on both sides. But of course it could just as commonly be someone beholden to the union  
instead. That's one reason why CB doesn't "transplant" to the public sector, as FDR said.
When this relationship is unbalanced, we get, as in the case of public education, very high expenses and very poor results. And I have already outlined many of the facts above, and they are simply facts: poor teachers kept on while good ones are fired; every effort made to avoid accountability by teachers; the fewest school days of any major industrial nation; bottom third and quartile academic performance.
Presenting these facts, Robert, is not slanting anything but rather airing the true facts.
I believe sweeping the truth under the rug doesn't usually lead to a good outcome.

Vince Killoran
7 years 10 months ago
I believe in employees rights, just not when I believe in them, right?

Walt & I have claimed a lot of space on this elsewhere on this website so I'll stop after this. I had to laugh when he wrote that  he would support public sector unions, "if I could be assured someone like Chris Christie represented the taxpayer": how about Scott Walker, would he be okay?!  Oh, right-he refuese to engage in CB.

The fact is that public sector workers don't get everything for which they ask.  As for hard-nosed negotiations, Democrats such as Ed Rendall, Maynard Jackson, and Coleman Young locked horns with municipal unions on a regular basis. It's amazing how the employer role emerges time & again.
John Siegmund
7 years 10 months ago
This collective bargaining issue is not about money. It is about voice and control.  The robber baron types want to take away worker's voices and resistance to their schemes to do things like outsource their jobs or bring inexpensive visa labor to replace them.  Lets put the blame where it really belongs on the Federal Reserve for QE2, on Congress for mismanagement of the country's resources, on state and local politicians for mismanagement, on the global banking cartel including Wall street who through the Fed ripped off the American tax payer and have never been held accountable.  Oh they paid back their TARP with some profit, but what about all the financial criminality that went on outside of TARP where is that money?  Why are the workers of this country paying for the screw ups and criminal actions of the elite in this country?  Maybe we need to put our foot down and bring real change to our government like ending the Federal Reserve system, forcing the sale of all Federally owned BLM land and bring ALL of our military back to the US and have a neutral noninterventionist foreign policy and  punish the removal of jobs from our country. If we don't change soon our country may end up like Libya!  Get out of the stupid left right paradigm and start to thinking in terms of right and wrong freedom or slavery!!
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 10 months ago
Like you, Vince, I think we've used our allotted share of words and then some, but it is an important topic. And this is my signoff also.
I figured you might get a laugh out of me bring up CB with Gov Christie. After the last chuckle, however, here is what Christie had to say about CB, that he would "let everything be collectively bargaining, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there is someone in the room representing you."
We don't have to go far to find one side pretty close to absent: Christie's predecessor, Gov Corzine. At a statehouse rally of government sector unions, Corzine shouted out, "We will fight for a fair contract." Fight for whom, one wonders? We know what the union rep will consider fair: every dollar he can remove from the taxpayers' wallets to go to his union. And we would expect nothing less. He is their paid representative and that's how the union gets more dues money. But what about Corzine? The "we" he refers to seems to imply it is the union membership and himself. Hard to imagine the taxpayer so fighting. But the proof is in the pudding.  During Corzine's tenure, unfunded benefits and pensions for unions increased literally billions of dollars. Corzine was not exactly an adversarial tiger for the taxpayers' interests, the results suggest. Corzine's extra billions in unfunded pension obligations will be shifted on to the shoulders of the children of New Jersey's taxpayers.
And that, as FDR and others feared, is a sound reason why we shouldn't transplant CB from private industry to the government employee organizations, also probably why Obama is curiously silent on promoting CB for federal employee unions.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
Re: Union Busting

According to The Pew Center on the States January 2010 report title "The Trillion Dollar Gap"  states and local governemnts across the nation have a trillion dollar and growing problem of unfunded retiree pension and other benefits like health care, that urgently needs to be reformed.  As of 2008  Wisconsin was one of only four states that fully funded its pension obligation but like most other states only makes small contribution to fund retiree health and other benefits.  All states have a serious public employee retirment funding problem. 

All states require urgent reform of public employee retirement programs.  Some like California, Illinois, New Jersey are so behind in their funding, they may noit be able to catch up. 

The reforms needed if to have state employee pay for more of their own retirement benefits and to reduce the benefits promised to state and local public employees.

Wisconsin is right to hot allow further negotiations on retiree benfits that are alresdy known to be grossly unaffordable.  It is not possible for any state to keep up with the rise of pensions and  health care benenfit s that continue to be routinely demanded by publcic employee unions.  All states are failing to adequately fund retiree health care costs now and will fall further behind in the future to a point where most promised benefits can ever be paid.  Public mplyee unions demands become harmful to their own interest and the public interest.  Future defaults of paymnets to public rertired public employees must be avoided. 

Promises of increases pension and retiree health care benefits need to be taken off the table by law.  Instead serious pension and retiree health care cost reductions must be urgnetly mplemented now. 

The Wisconsin Governor is doing a major public service in taking urgently needed action to keep local and state pension and retirment funds solvent and payable to retiree as promised.  Anything less is wishful thinking that will cause certain failure of a states to pay its retirees as promised. 
Colin Donovan
7 years 10 months ago

"Wall-Street-led, job-killing recession continues to claim victims." Why not, "Democrat-led Fannie and Freddie-created housing bubble, together with collusion of Wall Street investment industry, largely voting for and funding the Democratic Party,  destroys the economy"?

"...states and municipalities are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of workers."  Why not, "states and municipalities, who unlike the federal government can't print money, are forced to balance their budgets so that their employees will have jobs and their citizens will at least have some services."  

"...ending the right of unions to collective bargaining."  Why not, "ending the right of bargaining on some out-of-control elements previously negotiated," since, IN FACT, the end of collective bargaining altogether is not what is proposed.

I could bear to read no further, having no confidence that I would be reading anything other than Democrat talking pioints.

I next made the mistake of watching the paen of praise for fact-based, commercial-free, public broadcasting.  My hopes for a non-political "America" have been dashed.

ed gleason
7 years 10 months ago
Of course public service unions in many cases abused their power and negotiated sweetheart wages and benefits. But the union busters posting here and their right wing Governors want to destroy unions because of some abuses.[also because of the help they give to Dem. pols] Would they want to destroy business and eliminate free enterprise companies because of the huge fraud of the last few decades?. If 'liberals' called for the end of private business because of abuse, we would hear about commie take over and 2nd amendment remedies.   


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