Earlier this month, as is my general practice, I noted the passing of Labor Day without giving it much thought. After all, it would be my last day off for about five weeks, so I didn’t want to exert myself. Then last week I saw what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at the annual AFL-CIO convention at Foxwoods Casino. And it got me to thinking, which can be sort of a dangerous thing.
After battling for months with the state’s union workforce over givebacks to help balance the state budget, Malloy sought to make amends:
“Gov. Dannel P. Malloy acknowledged there were ‘sharp elbows’ thrown over the past eight months between state employee unions and his administration, but said Thursday morning ‘please don’t question my commitment to labor.’”
I trust the governor was talking only about his political position on the labor movement. For it should go without saying that it’s not really the governor’s job to be “committed to labor,” but to be committed to getting the best deal possible for both sides the next time the state employees contracts are up for renewal. Taxpayers need “commitment” from the governor, too.
Presumably in the spirit of reconciliation, Larry Dorman, a state employee union boss, made a comment that was laughable on its face:
“It’s the first time in a long time we’ve had a governor that hasn’t actively declared war on the labor movement.”
Really? Wasn’t it the Republican administration of John Rowland that negotiated the unsustainable 20-year labor benefits agreement that helped to put us in this bind in the first place? If Rowland “declared war” on the labor movement, then I’d hate to see what a big sloppy kiss would look like.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a mindless union basher. I recognize and honor the proud history of organized labor in this country. My wife is a member of a public-sector union and so is my sister. From the coal miners of West Virginia to the teachers in America’s public schools, workers across the country are far better off than they used to be. And the nation is mostly stronger for it.
That having been said, sometimes unions are part of the problem. In the face of resentment from their private-sector colleagues who have seen their wages and benefits stagnate over the last 20 years, it’s easy for public sector workers to say to the privates, “I’ve got mine; now you need to work to get yours.”
Too often there is a failure on the part of public sector workers to understand that the resources to fund the government come from the private sector. And when total compensation packages in government outstrip those in the non-government sector, then the system becomes unsustainable. For an example, check out the deal the Connecticut State Police are still working under. Troopers and prison guards are permitted to retire after 20 years at any age and can jack up their already lengthy pensions by piling on the overtime in their three highest earning years.
Not only are the troopers and others gaming the system, but their insistence that private sector workers should do a better job of negotiating strong compensation packages is absurd. Public-sector unions often fund candidates for local and state offices. Then when its time to negotiate labor contracts, those same public officials are inclined to be generous. So in effect, public sector workers are bargaining from both sides of the table, while private-sector workers must operate in an adversarial environment.
And even in the private sector, when management gives too much ground, as was the case of the U.S. auto manufacturers, markets have a way of exacting punishment. When the United Auto Workers got a series of great labor agreements 30 and 40 years ago, it opened the doors for Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda, which were able to produce better vehicles with lower-paid workers. The resulting competition, along with a lack of visionary leadership at the U.S. companies, caused major fiscal crises in the 1970s and 2000s that could only be remedied with taxpayer-funded bailouts.
So, what has caused the percentage of organized U.S. workers to decline so precipitously? As of 2010, union membership constituted 11.9 percent of the national workforce, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. The only growth in union organization is in the public sector, whose members are now 36.2 percent organized.
Connecticut fares better than the national average in overall union membership, clocking in at 17.3 percent. The Connecticut advantage probably stems from higher union rates, not only of government workers, but of private-sector workers employed by large unionized manufacturers such as Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, along with the Dutch-owned Stop & Shop supermarket chain.
So what’s next for labor in the U.S.? Frankly, I don’t think the outlook is terribly bright — even in the public sector. The more this wretched economy stifles economic growth, the less patience taxpayers will have with collective bargaining that drive taxes inexorably up.
In deep-blue Connecticut, however, the outlook is a bit rosier. After reassuring the AFL-CIO of his unflagging fealty to labor, Gov. Malloy just this week made good on his word by signing a pair of executive orders. Bypassing the legislature, Malloy has essentially laid the groundwork for state child care workers and personal care attendants to form unions and bargain collectively.
As for the private sector, things look pretty grim. If big labor, with all its resources, still can’t even organize Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., then what are the chances of increasing its ranks substantially? Despite the best efforts of the Obama administration to punish right-to-work states such as South Carolina, they’re clearly where the growth is.
Connecticut, on the other hand, has the worst job creation record in the nation over the last two decades. Get the picture?
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.