With public employee unions throwing tantrums in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan over proposed budget cuts, it’s worth remembering that no matter how out of whack they get, government employee compensation levels will never be enough for these unions. This attitude is in the DNA of public-sector unions, and it defines their reason for existing.
A few years back, the general counsel for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest public employee union, explained at a meeting why his organization is such an effective force:
Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.
Notwithstanding the fact that union’s members do not give “willingly” to the organization (instead, they have dues forcefully extracted from their pay) — or perhaps because of that fact — this statement received a standing ovation from a crowd of admiring fellow union bosses and school employees. It’s the key to understanding how these unions frame the current funding debates.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker plans to balance his state's budget by requiring public school employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salary towards the cost of their archaic, defined-benefit pensions, which scarcely exist anymore in the private sector. Employees would have to kick in 12.6 percent toward their health care coverage compared to an average 20 percent in the private sector. The response from unions has been to shut down public schools for three days (and counting) and compare the governor to a dictator (or worse).
How disconnected from reality are these unions and some of their members? One teacher railed at an anti-Walker rally, "This is the scariest thing I've ever seen." She apparently doesn’t watch the History Channel or the news from overseas. She also seems to live on a different planet from the taxpayers and private-sector employees who support her unsustainable privileges.
Public-sector unions seem willfully ignorant of the wrenching economic changes endured by so many in the private sector in recent years, including layoffs, wage reductions and greatly scaled-back fringe benefits. In Michigan as in Wisconsin, none of that matters to the unions, whose purpose is to extract the most they can from taxpayers and the system. They use the union dues they coerce from members to purchase the cooperation of elected officials, whose goal should be to provide necessary government services for the least possible cost, but who instead too often block reforms needed to make that possible.
Syndicated columnist Linda Bowles once wrote: "The task of weaning various people and groups from the national nipple will not be easy. The sound of whines, bawls, screams and invective will fill the air as the agony of withdrawal pangs finds voice." That noise-making is well underway in Michigan and around the country.
In the meantime, remember that, by their own words and deeds, public employee unions have only one purpose: looking out for themselves.