It is with much trepidation that I venture into the world of political commentary but here goes.
If you have followed the news at all over the past week, you probably are at least somewhat familiar with the protests over proposed legislation in Wisconsin changing the contribution levels of public employees (including public school teachers) toward their health and pension benefits as well as curtailing the type of collective bargaining that public employee unions can engage in with the state government. Let me preface these remarks with a couple of observations.
1. Public school teachers do a vital and difficult job. There has been a great deal of commentary over the past week that minimizes what these teachers do. (Most of it has been along the lines of…”they only work 9 months a year and they make more than the average private sector worker). I think that this commentary is misguided to say the least. The calendar of the school year is not the issue and their current level of compensation isn’t the issue in and of itself, either.
2. The rank and file teacher in my opinion should be paid better. I think that if they were the quality of teacher who entered the field would improve and the quality of instruction would improve as well. I just think incentives work. Education is important and the way many teachers are paid shows how little much of society thinks of it.
With that being said, the Wisconsin Teachers Unions are wrong.
They are wrong not because of the specific economics of the current proposal. They are wrong because the system that they are seeking to uphold is corrupt. Teachers in Wisconsin are public employees. That means their compensation (salaries, benefits and pension) are directly paid by the taxpayers of Wisconsin. Past state administrations allowed the public employees in Wisconsin to unionize and to collectively bargain in an attempt to increase their compensation. The public employee unions collect union dues from their members, which means they collect tax revenue. So in effect, they are using taxpayer money to lobby for more taxpayer money. This puts them in a classic conflict of interest position. The dues that they collect are not spent just for the operation of the union (i.e. office space, official salaries, computers, printers and light bills). These dues are spent to lobby for specific legislation. They are spent in campaign contributions, ostensibly to support candidates who would favor policies that resulted in higher compensation for public employees. So tax revenue is being spent, not to provide government services on behalf of the public, but to feather the nest of government personnel. What makes it even more objectionable is that these lobbying activities and campaign contributions are spent almost entirely in the service of one political party (in the case of Wisconsin the Democratic Party). So these unions are in effect a partisan political organization. It works to get Democrats elected, who in turn reward their supporters with better contracts. It is Tammany Hall politics, the “spoils system” in all of its glory. As an aside, the economics, particularly of the pension benefits that have been developed within this system are unsustainable and if left alone will ultimately bankrupt Wisconsin. But that isn’t even the main point, it is just the flashpoint that has ultimately brought this issue to the surface.
Let me pose a counterfactual and see if it adds clarity. There is a group of government employees who consistently trend Republican in their voting patterns, significantly so. They are not allowed to unionize or collectively bargain. They are active duty members of the Armed Forces. Studies have shown that in recent Presidential elections the military vote has trended 60-70% Republican. What if soldiers were allowed to unionize and not only collectively bargain for their compensation and benefits, but also to act as lobbyists and make organizational campaign contributions in the millions to support Republican candidates? Wouldn’t this reasonably result in higher military budgets? Typically Republican administrations tend to support higher levels of defense spending. What if in return for these campaign contributions Republican candidates promised the military higher salaries and more generous benefits? It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to envision scenarios where the constitutional civilian control of the military would be compromised, making the U.S. a much more militarized state. If the military was in effect a partisan political arm of the Republican Party couldn’t that result in the abuse of military power to quash political opposition? Allowing a sector of government employees, state or federal, to become in effect a tax subsidized political arm of a particular political party is bad for our society. It skews our political process and compromises the delivery of important government services which are supposed to benefit all of society. That is what has happened in Wisconsin (and lots of other places in many state governments and to a significant degree in the federal government as well. This really shouldn’t be a partisan political issue. It should be a matter of good government. If you don’t believe that, then why did that noted right-wing politician and anti-unionist (I speak tongue-in-cheek of course) Franklin Delano Roosevelt oppose the unionization of public employees? It is because he understood that it compromised the very delivery of government services in a way that would hurt all of society.
I want the Wisconsin teachers to be paid as well as they possibly can be. And I want the quality of education provided there and everywhere to as high as possible. But I also want budgets to be balanced and more importantly even than that. I want government to be of the people and FOR the people, not for the government.