Public employee unions: a ‘50-year mistake’?

Recent events in Wisconsin have caused many people to consider what role, if any, public employee unions should play in negotiations over salaries and working conditions.

Photo credit: Justin Ormont

Though on a smaller scale, events this week in Sandy and Salt Lake City have brought this issue home.

On Tuesday, as many as 200 unionized teachers attended a Canyons Board of Education meeting to voice concerns about the Canyons School District’s decision to remove three minor policies (of a total 25) from the negotiation table. On the same day, more than 100 unionized Salt Lake City workers showed up at City Hall to protest Mayor Ralph Becker’s proposal to eliminate “‘merits,’ ‘steps,’ and ‘COLAs’ (cost of living allowances) in favor of annual increases to be determined depending on revenues each budget year.”

Certainly, people should be allowed to form private groups to support causes of their choice – the Constitution protects freedom of association – but should state or local governments choose to negotiate with unions of public employees?

Photo credit: Joe Rowley

Walter E. Williams notes that nearly 40 percent of public employees in the U.S. belong to unions (17.5 percent in Utah) and adds: “Given the relationship between politicians and public employee unions, we should not be surprised that public employee wages and benefits often average 45 percent higher than their counterparts in the private sector. Often they receive pension and health care benefits to which they make little or no contribution.”

Jonah Goldberg argues that “public unions have been a 50-year mistake.” What do you think? Are public employee unions good for Utah? Should government negotiate with public unions over taxpayer dollars?

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  • Anonymous

    Matthew, I would really like to see verifiable data that teachers in Utah are making 45 percent more than private sector employees with similar qualifications.  Those would be employees with professional degrees at usually a masters degree level.   

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, jotab.

      Please note that the quote you’re referring to by Mr. Williams regards all public employees on average nationwide, not just educators or in Utah. Still, it would be interesting to see how Utah teacher salaries measure up to salaries in comparable industries (or private vs. public teacher salaries). We may look into that.

      • Sedickson

        I believe you will find that State Public Employee’s have not received a raise since 2001. They did receive a COLA four years ago this July which I believe was less than 1%. While at the same time the cost of their “benefits” went up and cost them, from 2001 to present, in excess of 13%, it may be as much as 20+%.
        I believe that last MCA found that public employee’s compensation and benefits were well under the pay and benefit received by workers, private and public, in all the surrounding states, and the Legislature did not and will not approve of a MCA for 2012, so public employees wages will remain the same for the next two years, while the cost of their benefits and out of pocket costs will continue to go up.
        It will be interesting to see if the information you find agrees with the Legislative Auditors and the Utah Department of Human Resources.

  • Anonymous

    Whether individually or collectively, everyone should have an opportunity to negotiate with their employer for salary, benefits and working conditions. Since public sector jobs are tied to budgets, not profits, I see no problem negotiating collectively within the available budgets.

  • tiredoffighting

    I am absolutely appalled by this article. Teachers in Utah do not make 45% more than the private sector. I, for one, am completely fed up with the polarization in our great country. Clearly, we are getting nowhere and fast. I propose that both the far right and the far left set aside their diatribes of misinformation and begin a collaborative effort to move this country in the right direction.  I think it is time to turn the tenor of the conversation to a more productive and positive view.

  • Anonymous

    I find it interesting that it is even discussed that those who work in public positions would not be allowed to be part of a union.  Let’s see how a school district likes bargaining with each teacher individually!  Not only will it be time consuming, but the morale will be non-existent and it won’t take long for many districts to see that they have far fewer teachers than positions.  But then again, maybe that is what Utah citizens want.  Although, the legislators, Eagle Forum and Sutherland Institute don’t seem to care what the “people” want.  Only what big money wants. 

    • aDifferentTake

      Can you tell me what the problem would be if the school district had to bargain with each teacher individually? 
      You say it would be se discussions.  time consuming, but teachers already have to go through annual performance evaluations (along with a ton of other red-tape evaluations) — the only real difference here would be that money would be included in tho
      You say morale will be non-existent, but I believe that there is little incentive for teachers now — it doesn’t matter if you’re a good or bad teacher, your pay depends on your certifications and tenure.  If we introduced an amount of competition (like there is in the real world), the good teachers would win and the bad teachers would lose.  This will improve morale because the good teachers would be recognized and rewarded for their efforts, while the bad ones will be incentivized to find a job better suited to their talents.  (Yes, I’m actually suggesting that we have some bad teachers — I grew up in Utah, and had my fair share of them.  Anybody who says that all teachers are good teachers needs to take a closer look.) 
      You say that the lesislature and others don’t care about what the “people” want.  Well, I’m one of those “people” — and it’s my tax dollars that help pay teacher salaries.  The US education system keeps falling in the OECD rankings, but yet we keep doing things the same way that they’ve been done for generations.  It’s insanity to do more of the same and expect a different result.  Maybe if we introduced a few important changes — and I can think of nothing more pertinent in this dicussion than money — our education system could start to compete with the rest of the industrialized world.

      • aDifferentTake

        Stinking browser…  In the previous post, please move the "se discussions" on the 2nd line to the end of the 4th line.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, let’s all demonize public employees.  As long as we have state legislators living high on the hog with our tax dollars paying for their health insurance — for life if they are re-elected enough times — I’ll have a very hard time respecting them as they try to cut public employees who actually contribute to our general welfare.

  • Sedickson

    Matthew,
    Just wondering. Did you bother to check your facts before publishing?
    Is it your intent to publish informative views and news or to Public Employee Bash?
    Because just skimming your article persuades me that it is the latter.
    Which, in my opinion, makes this publication no better than the National Enquirer, Star, and other publications of such ilk.

    • Derek H. Monson

      If you’re going to publicly express such decided and disparaging opinions, you may at least want to do everyone the courtesy of thoroughly reading what you’re going to spout off on.  Seriously, if all you’re doing, by your own admission, is “skimming” Matt’s piece and commenting on it, then you’re just telling the world that your opinion is likely either baseless, uneducated, or otherwise grounded in something other than reasonable consideration of what Matt actually wrote.   In which case, the comparison of the National Enquirer, Star, “and other publications of such ilk” would be more appropriately applied to your own post than to Matt’s.

      • Sedickson

        Actually Derek I did not only skim it. But just a skim actually allowed me to make a decision as to whether or not I would read the article.
        I actually read it and followed all the threads and references. I also actually looked up all the facts relating to the article to see how much they apply to public workers in the State of Utah. How about you? Did you find out how factual the information was? How and even if it did or could apply to Utah State public employees?
        Problem here is that too many accept comments and articles such as this without finding out if they are applicable to the area in which they live or just public employee bashing. I am informed and I stand by my comparison to the Enquirer etc.
        By the way, Derek, after further study I did find that the State Human Resources is in the process of doing a Comparative Salary Servery (not to be confused with a MCA) which should be completed in September. I am still finding facts and researching.  How about you?

        • Derek H. Monson

          I am commenting on the due diligence and the logic (or lack thereof) underlying your post, so the amount of research I’ve done on Matt’s facts is irrelevant.  If I was trying to defend the facts that Matt cites, then you may have a point.  The questions you pose to me seem more like a distraction from the point than anything relevant to the discussion.

          I commend you for doing your due diligence on the facts that you disagree with.  However, there’s still some basic logic that’s lacking in your comment on Matt’s blog post.

          You believe that Matt’s intent is simply to “Public Employee Bash,” but is there one comment in Matt’s post that directly disparages public employees?  Matt cites a few examples of local unions in Utah expressing their views on local issues, references quotes from a few national figures about the merits of public employee unions, and then asks some legitimate questions about whether unions for government employees are a good thing.  It seems rather irrational to look at that and then start ranting about “Public Employee Bashing” and comparing someone who would ask such questions to a tabloid writer.  Such statements seem to say more about an over-sensitivity on your part to the issues surrounding public employee unions than about the validity of Matt’s post.