"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Are unions really the underdog we should be rooting for?

Many eyes are on Wisconsin as public unions flex their muscle to demand what they say are their rights. The NEA claims the proposed legislation “strips away worker rights and destroys the collaborative partnerships that have been established between labor and management in Wisconsin.” Whether you believe this is one of several “union-busting bills” introduced in several states, depends on which side of the debate you are on. If you sympathize with the NEA, you believe that "the teachers are under siege”, that being asked to contribute more towards their health insurance and retirement plans is unfair to the teachers and devalues the work they do.

The view from this side of the debate looks like this (take from a teacher comment on the NEA Education Votes site):

“Governor Walker’s messages are so full of false innuendos…Especially the Republican lobbiest [sic] produced paid for TV commercials…Teacher’s [sic] have always paid their fair share… the reason they have good benefits is because they were asked to take those versesa [sic] pay raise…year after year . . . (cheaper for districts). Then For 10 years WI forced QEI no one mentions that…Forced to not get raises !”

Let us set aside for the moment the low quality writing skills of this person who is educating your children. Perhaps the heat of the moment caused all grammatical rules and decent vocabulary to absent themselves. She complains that teachers were forced into taking lower wages in exchange for good benefits. She, apparently, is unfamiliar with the history of employer-paid health insurance and 401(k). Most of the private sector’s lower wages are offset by employer contributions to health care and retirement, at least in the good companies. There are plenty of companies who simply don’t provide their employees with decent benefits because their overall profitability cannot justify those expenses. There is (for now) no profit in education so wages cannot be tied to similar formulas, but that also does not mean that wages cannot be tied to any measure of success or limitation.

The teacher went on to say,

Also the benefits (you say we get) to our pension fund were not paid by our districts in lean years, Many communities used the money elsewhere for other needs… What did The pension Board do with all the overdo [sic] IOU’s owed on our behalf ? Charge communities interest.? ..NO, we flet [sic] sorry for the communities and forgave their debt….But Oh No we are portrayed as Public employees who don’t pay our fair share… We have always overpaid and forgave our debtors their short comings…. …WE PAY the same taxes that everyone else in our income bracket does…We don’t get exempt [sic] like the ultra rich.”

Most companies with matching funds for retirement accounts use a formula that ties those contributions to the bottom line. So in lean years their employees don’t get much, or sometimes any, retirement funds except the ones they personally contribute. It is unclear how one can determine that they “overpaid” their pension funds since any contributions to such a fund simply place more in your retirement savings. The non sequitur about taxes is just more standard boiler plate from the liberals. Your tax level has nothing to do with insurance or pension contributions.

There is a pervasive sense among some teachers that they are treated differently from the average private sector employee. This is true. The average private sector employee must make their own case each year that their contribution to the overall profitability of the company warrants a raise in pay. Simply remaining in the company’s employ does not guarantee this increase, as it does with teachers. Most have no guarantee that if they have been there the longest they are in least jeopardy of losing their jobs. Quite the contrary, most long term employees face higher risk of being let go because their salary history makes them too expensive to hang on to. Thus it is true that teachers are not treated like everyone else.

On the other hand, where they like to think they are different from private sector employees they are in fact very similar or hold even slightly better positions. Private sector employees also work long hours, often bring work home from the office and have to pay all their own continuing education costs. Teachers will often site these as special hardships they alone face. Many in the private sector have taken pay cuts just to hold on to their jobs. And if you want to have a bragging rights competition for the toughest job, talk to the medical staff at any senior assisted care center who have to clean the incontinent residents day in and day out. Passing knowledge on to a group of students in a climate controlled classroom (for most) is a cake walk by comparison.

Missouri NEA staff traveled to Madison, WI this week to offer helping hands and show support for the public employees in Wisconsin. They are one of many unions being organized to show solidarity with their oppressed brothers. More union demonstrations are expected this weekend in state capitols across the country. This expansive plan to show a lot of support for the teachers in an effort to force their will may ultimately come back to bite the unions.

In his new book, “Underdogma: How America's Enemies Use Our Love for the Underdog to Trash American Power,” Michael Prell examines why we tend to root for the underdog. He describes underdogma as, “the belief that those who have less power are virtuous and noble - because they have less power – and the belief that those who have more power are to be scorned – because they have more power. This is a reflexive action on our part. If we gave thought to our position we might see that the minority is the minority precisely because what they stand for is wrong or at least not the most desirable.

Mr. Prell describes a University of South Florida experiment in which participants were given the exact same descriptive paragraph about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and asked to state which side they supported. The only difference between the test subjects was that some were given a map of Israel and Palestine in which Israel appeared to be the larger geographically, and the others were shown a larger region of the middle east showing Israel as a small portion thereof. Test subjects consistently sided with whichever entity appeared smaller on the map.

Knowing this, if the unions insist on making themselves look big and powerful, public sentiment is highly likely to turn away from them because, we are conditioned to stand up for the little guy. Public sentiment already sways with governor Walker. Statistics support that what he is asking for in terms of contributions is reasonable compared with those in the private sector. The provisions for collective bargaining only apply to wages which shows that at least some in politics have learned from history, like that with the UAW, and know that pension obligations can be the elephant that sinks the fiscal boat. It will be interesting to watch the poll numbers after this weekend to see if, in puffing themselves up, the unions simply make themselves a bigger target to be taken down like the proverbial Goliath.

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