The rhetoric surrounding the debate about ‘right to work’ in Michigan has mostly consisted of the heated, emotionally driven variety. Refrains of ‘Unions built the middle class in the US!’ and ‘Labor unions are nothing more than extortionists!’ are both wrong, but highly compelling in an emotional sense. As goes the quote, the first casualty of war is truth, and there’s a full blown political war in Michigan today.
The fact of the matter is that collective bargaining does indeed lead to higher pay for workers. This is a verifiable fact. The flip side of that is that higher pay has to come from somewhere, and for state workers, that comes from tax revenues. When you have tens of thousands of state workers who are able to cash out unused sick, personal and vacation days, that annually comes to $710 million annually in the ten most populous states. And in California alone, spending on overtime for state workers nearly reached the billion dollar mark last year.
If every state were to reduce what it spends on worker salaries even to zero, it still wouldn’t solve the fiscal problems states face. But what it is indicative of is a culture that extends well beyond just industrial relations. You have a speculative financial sector gaming the tax code to profit at the expense of the average taxpayer. You have an educational and health systems that operate without any regard for outcome or quality. You have a military industrial complex that focusses on engineering systems of death and a cabal of conservatives that finds wars to justify their purchase. You have an myriad of entitlement programs that are going to continue growing in terms of spending to the point where states and the federal government will have no money to spend on anything else other than the sick and the elderly.
In short, the fundamental problem this country faces is that the people with power operate under the mindset of ‘What’s in it for me?’ And it’s killing us. Government exists to protect its citizens and deliver services the private sector is either unable to do so or does so inefficiently. It’s devolved into a racket wherein the politically connected, whether Democratic of Republican, vie for influence based not on merit, worth or value, but on political expedience and clout.
We’re never going to be able to have a government that’s totally free of the kind of influence described above. It’s a part of human nature, and that’s one thing nobody, particularly government, is able to change. But if America is to continue as a place worth living in, we need to fundamentally overhaul the relationship that we have with the government.
So how does this tie back in to unions? As I mentioned yesterday, unions have a tendency to focus more on the interests of their own members rather than the viability or quality of the overall outcome of whatever it is that they do. I don’t agree with the ‘right to work’ legislation, but neither do I agree with a continuation of how unions are allowed to thwart sensible policy from being crafted. America collectively needs to go from ‘What’s in it for me?’ to ‘What can I do?’
What’s happening in Lansing is only tangentially about unions. At it’s heart, however, the real issue is power.