French Cheese — February 21, 2011

I used to marvel at the French.  For years, every time some seemingly rational president came along and sought to trim the exorbitant benefits enjoyed by the public sector unions, they would react by going on massive strikes and tying the country in knots.  “Aux barricades!” And the astonishing thing is that by and large the French citizenry supported the strikers.  “Vive la greve!” they would cry.  The romanticism of the old French Revolution was strong.  They celebrated their own inconvenience at the hands of the striking railroad workers, and demanded that the government pay up to satisfy them, even though it would be they themselves who paid for it.  It never made sense to me.

Now we will see how French the residents of Wisconsin are.  Will they line up in solidarity behind the striking government workers and demand that their own taxes go up to pay for benefits they themselves don’t enjoy?  I doubt it.

The strikers in Madison flatter themselves with comparisons to the revolutionaries in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  “This is what democracy looks like!” shout their signs.  Other signs compare Governor Scott Walker to Hosni Mubarak (as well as Adolph Hitler).  The protesters also celebrated the 14 Senate Democrats who decamped across the border to Illinois so as to deprive the legislature of a quorum to pass Walker’s union reform legislation.

But think about this – last November, voters in Wisconsin brought in Republican majorities in both state houses as well as the governor’s mansion.  Those candidates – particularly Walker – campaigned specifically on the policies they are trying to pass now.  If the protesters prevail and stop this legislation, they are showing quite the opposite of democracy – they are engaging in mob rule.  Democracy is to allow the will of the people to be expressed through their elected representatives.  As Obama cheerfully reminded Republicans, “elections have consequences.”  So don’t pretend this is democracy in action.  These protests are profoundly undemocratic.

As to the AWOL Senators: rather than heroes of the working stiffs, they are more like the petulant child who takes his ball and goes home if the game doesn’t go to his liking.  Hardly the “serious conversation” that the Democratic President has been calling for.

What has the protesters particularly exercised is the portion of the bill that crimps the collective bargaining of the unions.  “Anti-union!” cry the strikers!  And President Obama, who seems to have an uncanny knack for weighing in on local events (Boston police, Arizona’s immigration law, etc) in ways that stir things up rather than calm them down, also offered that this law appeared to be “an assault” on unions.

Well, perhaps, but I don’t have a real problem with that.  I agree with that conservative icon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held that public sector employees should not unionize.  Not only is there a possibility of putting the public welfare at risk in the event of a strike – and that was FDR’s beef – but it is also an inherently corrupting arrangement.

Public sector unions negotiate with the very people they vote into office.  Politicians face a choice – do they fight the unions’ salary and benefit demands and then face their wrath at election time, or do they go with the unions and make their reelection easier?  When unions become as powerful as they have of late, and in particular allied with one party, the rational politician will find a way to placate them.  The easiest road is to give away something that will be paid by future voters rather than by present-day taxpayers – pension and medical benefits.  That’s been going on for decades, and the bill is finally coming due.

And it’s not just their voting as a bloc.  Unions collect dues from each member – in Wisconsin it’s between $600 and $1,000 a year – and use that money to lobby politicians.  With the tens of thousands of union members in the state, that’s millions available to influence the elections of the very people who are making salary and benefit decisions.  How can that fail to corrupt the process?  I am far from convinced that the value of public unions outweighs this inborn corruption.

The Madison protesters vent extreme scenarios: if Walker prevails, our children will find their weekends taken away! (And people said Sarah Palin’s “death panels” comment was over the top).  But as I listen to them, I want to ask, what are they afraid of?

Unions performed a valuable service in the early days of industrialization, when much of the work being asked was brute and repetitive, and one person could perform as well as the next.  Then, laborers were quite literally replaceable parts.  Let’s not forget, too, that management at the time was, shall we say, in its pre-enlightenment days, before it became generally accepted that a satisfied and productive work force is more important than harsh discipline and factory misery.

In those days, unions protected workers from exploitation.  Good for them.  There were struggles, even violence, but over time workers’ rights became an accepted part of our economic system.  In their time, unions helped to improve our society.

But now?  I just don’t understand why a teacher feels he or she needs to belong to a union.  Teachers are knowledge workers, not brute laborers.  Their individual abilities are their security.  Bank tellers aren’t protected by a union; neither are Justice Department lawyers.  What does union protection provide to teachers, except cover for the mediocre?

Excellent teachers have nothing to worry about.  A school administrator would be a fool to let a star teacher leave – that could bring down the achievement standards of the whole school, the morale, the sense of breaking new ground, the comraderie, the strength of the organism.

Because of that, the schools superintendent would negotiate like crazy to keep the excellent teachers – as many as he or she could afford – on staff.  This is basic management.  A union adds nothing to this process.  It is in keeping the less-accomplished on the payroll that the union provides its service.  And that is the problem in a nutshell.

In the private sector, unions have been left behind by an economy in which management seeks out and rewards talent, and free agents leverage their skills to their own best advantage.  Nobody thinks in terms of “solidarity” with their office mates.  They are co-participants in an enterprise in which excellence will generate rewards that will be shared according to contribution.

Why is this not the case in our schools?  The taxpayers of Wisconsin want to know.

Madison does not resemble Tahrir Square so much as it resembles Paris in 1983, 1995, 2010, etc.  And the solvency of the state government is on the line as much as it is in France.  Let’s see what the people say.

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