Why Are Government Workers in Unions?

July 25th, 2009 by Potato

Toronto’s been facing weeks of a garbage strike, which while stinky and drawing criticism, is little more than an annoyance after a crippling surprise strike by the TTC last year. After watching the unions do this to the public time and again, with no thought to their pain (indeed, the unions often aim to cause the most collateral damage for publicity’s sake), it makes me wonder:

Why are there even unions in government jobs?

Is there really a fear that a government responsible to the people and partly elected by the very people on the government payroll would be subject to systematic abuses like coal miners from a century ago?

Plus as Gates VP pointed out in a comment on the TO garbage strike post at 4p, there’s the issue of “essential services”, and pretty much every government service is to some degree essential, otherwise we’d let the private sector handle it in the first place.

We’ve thrown around the idea “essential services”, but frankly, they’re all “essential services”. If we didn’t think the job was essential to the functioning of our community we would have left it to the private sector.

The whole point of government services are that we’ve all kind of agreed that we want these services to be available, for the greater good on a not-for-profit basis. Ideally, we want them at a sustainable but
competitive price.

So we can’t “tyranically” abuse them, we can’t underpay them, we just want them to make a fair living administering our programs in a timely fashion.

So why are the Unions even involved in government work?
Are we really worried that our government workers are going to suffer systemic abuse?”

Sure, some services (such as nurses or keeping transit running 365 days a year) are more “essential” than others (so what if Revenue Canada falls a few weeks behind in the paperwork — they’ll get around to collecting those taxes in short order), but at some point you have to wonder why unions get the right to strike at all when it goes against the public good, yet governments have their hands tied in terms of hiring someone who is willing to do the job (“scabs” in the union parlance).

Larry McDonald brought up a similar point.

Why are unions allowed to go on strike in sectors where government is the only legal provider? Unions + monopoly supply = gouging the user. There are no market forces to restrain the whims of public sector unions. Disputes in these sectors should be resolved through arbitration and follow private sector benchmarks.

And again, another article

In the public sector, union power isn’t counter-balanced by the possibility of a long strike driving their employer out of business, or excessive wage/benefit demands making them uncompetitive (cough, GM, cough). Look at the example of Buffet and the Buffalo News: he knew that a strike would drive the paper out of business; he communicated that to the mildly disgruntled workers. They knew that if they went to strike there was a good chance the paper would close and they’d have no jobs to return to. There is no such economic limit to government workers; we’d have to change the laws to put in some kind of restraint.

Can’t we just “de-unionize” government work? We don’t need to farm it off to 3rd-parties, we just don’t need unions. After all, I’m no fan of privatization, either: who needs to throw profit margin considerations into essential services, and take the control so far away from the voter and taxpayer? Especially with garbage, the last thing we need is some company to decide to cut costs by just throwing it in the lake when no one’s looking. Of course, we can’t piss away the benefits of not having to pay shareholders by overpyaing public-sector unions; then we might as well privatize just to counterbalance the strength of the union.

And I don’t necessarily disagree with the salaries and benefits — I hear that public sector workers make 20% more on average than the equivalent position in the private sector. If accepting that kind of job meant you had to give up the freedom to strike to keep society functioning, then that would probably be a good trade-off.

Even without unions, in the extreme cases people could still organize job actions — but it would involve quitting, en masse, with the government having the ability to replace them. Then negotiations would work more like a Dutch auction: the government could offer a package just sweet enough so enough people accepted it that they could continue to function. “Scabs” could be hired to keep things moving if someone was so upset they wouldn’t work. And of course, we’d have to make it illegal for a union to bully a competitor or the general public with their strike tactics.

The violence on both sides — the public backlash against the union, as well as the union’s goon tactics — can’t be tolerated, and I’m appalled at the stories I’m hearing: of people running into picket lines with cars, and of picketers stopping unrelated trucks for hours and intimidating the private sector collectors.

It’s not an easy thing to do. The example of Reagan and the air traffic controllers is often brought up… but that’s one of the only examples of breaking a union. As much as it probably should be done for the public sector, it’s not a trivial thing for governments to push through.


One Response to “Why Are Government Workers in Unions?”

  1. Mike Says:

    Potato you have hit the nail on the head! There is no reason for Unions in public sector jobs. Just the job security of being in a workplace that does not rely on profits to keep it afloat should be enough of a benefit to keep people there. No one should have a right to take services away from the most vulnerable portions of the population (single mothers, service users of our social security network, etc)and services that we continue to pay for while they are on strike.

    Thank you for the well thought out and well articulated article!