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It's a Brave New World for Unions

The fact that public sector union members outnumber private sector union members is creating a whole new political dynamic.

12:34 PM, Feb 28, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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There's a good front page story in the Washington Post today about how political debates over unions are evolving. For one thing, a lot of people that are inclined to defend private sector unions don't feel obliged to protect public sector unions:

At least some elected officials normally sympathetic to industrial unions were questioning whether they should side with government workers.

"I believe in what unions do, but as an elected official I represent the taxpayers," said Jeff Berding, a registered Democrat on the Cincinnati City Council who ran as an independent after he opposed the party on a union issue. "I'm trying to get the best deal for them."

The divide between government worker unions and their opponents, playing out now in several state capitals, highlights a critical aspect of the evolving labor movement.

The Post story also provides another powerful reminder that private sector unions weren't always supportive of public sector unions:

Then-AFL-CIO chief George Meany was quoted in 1962 as saying that it is "impossible to bargain collectively with the government."

It's one thing to bargain with a private company knowing that profits are finite -- it's quite another to just keep socking it to the taxpayer. (Note that unlike Meany in 1962, the current AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka thinks that raising taxes will actually create jobs. Not only that, Trumka wants to raise the gas tax with oil going through the roof.)

The whole article is great and worth reading. One bone to pick, however: the authors accept claims that government workers are underpaid:

State and local workers earn about 4 percent less in wages than similarly educated workers at private companies, according to a study by John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research that echoes other findings. But researchers' conclusions about benefits for government workers, who often receive better health-care and retirement help than their counterparts at private companies, are unclear.

Union supporters assert that lower pay for government workers shows that they are not demanding too much.

"There are constraints on government worker pay, and they are working," said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, one of the nation's largest unions.

These studies on government workers' compensation tend to be political footballs. For instance, it's definitely not true that federal workers are under-compensated relative to the private sector. (If you want to wonk out on that topic, this TWS, magazine article on the topic is unbelievably definitive. If you like that kind of thorough analysis, you really out to subscribe.) Depending on how you control for any number of variables, government employees could easily be said to earn more.

But on the whole, a good article that explains a lot about the bind unions are in.

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