Government workers don't need unions

Vous savez que les États américains et les villes américaines ont de sérieux problèmes à atteindre leurs équilibres budgétaires.

Plusieurs solutions sont apportées pour négocier avec les syndicats sur leurs généreux fonds de pension et leurs avantages sociaux.

Un moment où l’autre, ils devront négocier avec intelligence et responsabilité, sans cela la décision leur sera imposée.

Deux articles en rafale sur le sujet, New York Times, The Economist (celui-ci est particulièrement intéressant).

Extrait de: Their Real Agenda, The New York Times, February 6, 2011

As states groan and stumble through the recession, some politicians are trying to exploit their financial crises for ideological purposes. Many Republicans want to use hard times to fundamentally reduce the role of states and public employee unions, in the same way federal tax cuts forced a debate on how to cut the deficit.

Some want to cut back severely on federal aid to the states, no matter how much new joblessness that may cause, while others want to ensure that Washington will never bail out a state close to defaulting on its bonds.

The latest pernicious idea, pushed by Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush and several members of Congress, would allow the states to declare bankruptcy, for the principal purpose of tearing up union contracts and negating pension obligations.

It is true that many public employee unions have done well during a time of hardship for most Americans. The problem, though, isn’t the existence of those unions; it is the generous contracts willingly given to them by lawmakers because of their lobbying power and bloc-voting ability. In New York, unionized state employees have had a 14 percent raise over four years, and now make an average of nearly $67,000. Iowa’s state workers last year won a 6 percent raise over two years.

Dozens of states give pension and health benefits far more generous than in the private sector. Their costs have resulted in significant cutbacks to basic state services for the poor and middle class.

But bankruptcy would fight fire with gasoline, spreading instability to the bond markets, scaring off investors who might think they would never get repaid, and making it much harder and more expensive for states to raise desperately needed capital. Some bond experts say even talk of allowing states to declare bankruptcy has rattled markets.

Magic-bullet ideas like this one are no substitute for the hard work of governing responsibly. Union contracts and benefits need to be changed at the bargaining table, and budget-cutting governors have all kinds of leverage. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York got the attention of state unions last week by threatening to lay off 9,800 workers if the unions don’t give up at least $450 million in payroll cuts and other givebacks. Other governors are talking about changing collective bargaining laws.

Governors also have a huge megaphone at their disposal, and should not hesitate to remind both the public and union members that financial emergencies require sacrifice. Government employees accept a special civic responsibility when they go to work for the taxpayers that is not always shared by their private counterparts — they are working to serve their state’s needs, not just themselves. (That point would be easier to sell if the sacrifice were universal. Giving tax cuts to billionaires and asking middle-class employees for givebacks makes little financial or moral sense.)

Though the bankruptcy proposal has not caught fire in Washington, it demonstrates that some conservatives are serious about experimenting with volatile new ideas. To contain the damage, lawmakers and unions need to get equally serious about dealing with costs that are beginning to infuriate the people who pay the bills.

Extrait de : Government workers don't need unions, The Economist, Feb 7th 2011

TODAY'S New York Times editorial wisely comes out against the proposal to allow states to declare bankruptcy as a union-busting, budget-saving move. However, I think the Times' goes wrong here:

It is true that many public employee unions have done well during a time of hardship for most Americans. The problem, though, isn’t the existence of those unions; it is the generous contracts willingly given to them by lawmakers because of their lobbying power and bloc-voting ability.

The Times' contention that the existence of public-employee unions is not the problem is true, if it is true, only because the unions "fix" a bargaining-power deficit public workers don't have. Without public-sector unions, government workers would lobby their way to padded paychecks, unobtanium-plated pensions, and hermetic job security anyway.

Which is just to say, government workers don't really need unions at all.

Indeed, the strategic logic behind private- and public-sector unions is fundamentally different. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," as some little somebody called Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it back in 1937.

In any productive joint enterprise, there’s a question of how to split the gains from cooperation. Our native sense of fairness tells us that our shares should be roughly proportional to the value of our contributions. But distributive fairness doesn’t automatically prevail. What we actually get—whether we get a fair share or get used—depends on our bargaining power. Individual workers with few options hardly stand a chance against managers backed by massive capital. Workers are most likely to get a cut that reflects the value of their contributions when they band together and bargain collectively. "To each according to his or her individual bargaining power" is hardly a compelling principle of distributive justice, which is why institutions that equalise bargaining power, such as private-sector labor unions, make moral sense.

The thing is, public-sector unions don't work like this.

Ø  They aren't bargaining against capitalists for a fair cut of the cooperative surplus.

Ø  They're bargaining against everybody who pays taxes and/or benefits from government spending.

The question of distribution in democratic politics isn't about splitting up jointly-produced profits.

It's about interest groups fighting to grab a bigger share of government revenue while sticking competing groups with the tax bill.

Because of the sheer size and relatively uniform interests of the group, public employees constitute a politically powerful bloc with or without unions. As the percentage of the labour force employed by the government rises, the heft of this group only increases. Public-employee unions simply consolidate an already impressive concentration of political bargaining power.

Moreover, as the Democratic Party comes increasingly to rely on patronage from the public-sector unions, the determination of Democratic politicians to bargain against the unions on behalf of taxpayers and the beneficiaries of competing government programmes necessarily weakens. For Democratic office-seekers, generous union contracts are "willingly given", as the Times put it, in roughly the same sense that unaffiliated private-sector workers "willingly" accept low wages and poor working conditions.

This leaves us with a superficially ironic situation. The Republican Party emerges as the organised champion of everyone who stands to lose in the fight over the fisc when public-sector unions win. The GOP's base electoral incentive to hobble their rival's main source of campaign cash and voter mobilisation leads it to function as a countervailing force against overpowered public-sector unions to the benefit of rich people, yes, but also to the benefit of less powerful and more needy constituencies within the Democratic coalition. A bit of public-employee union busting at the state and municipal level wouldn't leave government workers vulnerable. There's every reason to believe they'd continue to function as a powerful, pampered political faction. Pushback against public-sector unions would simply make the always-unfair fight over the fiscal commons slightly less unfair, and make fiscally prudent policy slightly less unlikely.