What Unions Should Be in 21st Century America

The role of unions in the United States has historically been to pool the collective power of workers to negotiate an end to exploitative work conditions and elevate rates of compensation. During the late 19th and early 20th century, unions fought courageously and successfully to raise the standard of living for workers and to push for systemic legislative reforms. While union spokespersons today may overstate their role in the creation of a middle class in America, their legacy is one of undeniable heroism and accomplishment.

In the aftermath of WWII, when the United States had an economy that was larger than the rest of the world combined, and a uniquely intact industrial base, unions flourished as never before. As America’s manufacturers enjoyed a near monopolistic position on world markets, and exported products to the recovering and developing nations, record profits amid minimal foreign competition enabled management to grant request after request to union negotiators, and a middle class was established that enjoyed an unprecedented level of broad prosperity.

Today the status of unions, and workers, is very different. The recovery of Europe and Japan, followed by the rise of great manufacturing nations throughout the world, has disrupted if not destroyed entire industries in the U.S. The American consumer can purchase a dazzling array of products at incredibly low cost, but the price for this has been the decimation of private sector unions. And into this void, public sector unions have emerged as the new voice of labor in the United [...] Read More

How Construction Worker Unions Can Save California

The California Labor Federation has a membership of more than 1,200 unions, representing over two million workers. And the first of seven key issues they list on their legislative agenda for 2012 is supporting high speed rail. As they put it, “Building high speed rail will grow our economy and create long-term jobs. An estimated 450,000 jobs in operations, maintenance, ticketing, and services will be needed to keep HSR up and running.”

It is difficult to imagine economic thinking more well intentioned yet fundamentally flawed. What private sector unions want, ideally, is to work cooperatively with government and industry to help create well paying jobs. But high speed rail will incur far more economic costs than economic benefits. Massive construction projects, using public/private financing mechanisms, have to benefit the economy. Otherwise they are examples of private gain – high paying jobs for workers who happen to belong to unions involved in the construction and maintenance of the project – in exchange for socialized loss – higher taxes that lower the disposable income of everyone else.

Policy activists who are critical of unions must understand that there are two crucial debates they are engaged in with unions. The first one is an economic argument – convincing union leadership that encouraging free market competition will lower the cost of living for everyone, and that when this happens all workers benefit. This is a tough sell, despite being entirely accurate. But the second debate, which regards what projects unions should be [...] Read More

Senator DeLeon’s Universal Retirement Security Act

The challenge of providing retirement security to all citizens is the broader issue behind the debate over what level of public sector pension benefits are both equitable and financially sustainable. California Senator Kevin De Leon’s proposed legislation, SB 1234, will hopefully further this debate.

As reported in the Sacramento Bee by Jon Ortiz on February 24th “California Democrats push pension plan for nongovernment workers,” and in the Los Angeles Times by Mark Lifsher on February 23rd, “Private-sector retirement savings plan proposed for California,” DeLeon’s bill will require every employer in the state with five or more employees to participate in the plan. If employers already offer a pension plan or 401K plan, they would be exempt.

Plenty of commentators have already weighed in with sobering missives on the many problems with DeLeon’s bill. You can read them in the San Bernardino Press Enterprise, the Pleasanton Weekly, CalWatchdog, CalWhine, and elsewhere. But when DeLeon says his bill “is designed to supplement Social Security retirement benefits,” he is on to something bigger than he may realize.

The goal of taxpayer funded retirement security, whether it is for a retired government worker or a retired private sector worker living on social security, is not to support an affluent lifestyle. A taxpayer funded retirement pension should be a modest amount, better than social security – but not some huge amount that enables an affluent lifestyle. To have an affluent lifestyle [...] Read More

The Faces of the Forgotten 33%

Last month a post entitled “America’s Forgotten 33% ” described those Americans who are not members of the elite 1% super-rich, nor part of the privileged 20% who work for the government, nor among the nearly 50% of America’s population who are, apparently, poor enough to avoid taxes altogether.

Who are these forgotten 33%? Who is this one-third of America, people who, compared to the other two-thirds, pay far more in taxes than they receive in return? Who are the faces of the forgotten 33%?

They are small business owners who can’t compete with the crony capitalist captains of big business, who use their financial influence with legislators to enact regulations that small businesses can’t possibly afford to comply with. They are independent contractors who work multiple jobs to earn a mid-five-figure annual gross income, yet pay nearly 50% in taxes on every extra dollar they make (25% federal, 9% state, 13% social security and medicare). They are small investors whose retirement savings lose value at the same time as government employee pension funds beat the market using high-frequency trading and other manipulative tactics that individual value investors can’t hope to emulate (and hold taxpayers accountable to cover the difference when they don’t beat the market). They are parents who can’t get a decent education for their children in public schools, because the teacher’s union makes it impossible to fire bad teachers, and creates a self-serving bureaucracy where administrators outnumber teachers. Parents who have no chance to influence local or [...] Read More

Apolitical Government Reform

Not as a libertarians, but as a good government fiscal conservatives, who value government and government programs, how might we respond to charges of right wing radicalism? How might we respond to charges that we are biased against working people, or want to destroy the middle class, or are a tool of the super-rich? If you want to keep good government programs, but want to make government more financially efficient, how to respond to charges of resenting government workers, or wanting to change the deal on government workers, or not appreciating government workers? Focusing on the state and local government entities here in sunny California, here are some thoughts:

(1) Public employees used to take jobs that paid less than private sector jobs. Up until about 20 years ago, the trade-off was clear: Government workers exchanged a lower salary for better benefits, a pension that was better than social security, and job security. This was a fair exchange, and the system worked just fine.

(2) Over the past 20 years, during the economically unsustainable internet bubble followed by the real-estate bubble, public sector unions stirred up envy among public sector employees, prodding them into demanding unsustainable increases to their compensation to match the private sector. Since these bubbles have burst, these unions use their nearly absolute power over California’s state and local politicians to maintain unsustainable levels of public sector employee compensation.

(3) We now have a situation where public employees have, in most cases, better base salaries than in [...] Read More

Why Not “Occupy” Public Sector Pension Funds?

A CIV FI post back in January 2010 entitled “Axis of Wall Street & Public Sector Unions” identified an irony still lost on the occupy movement’s rank and file – Wall Street is financed by the pension funds of unionized government workers. Every year, taxpayer funded government agencies pour hundreds of billions of dollars into Wall Street investment funds.

Occupy Wall Street? Why not “occupy” Wall Street’s union paymasters, the government employee pension funds?

Here’s a summary of the dynamics between Wall Street, unionized government workers, and the taxpayer:

(1) The government workers provide services vital to the taxpayer, and charge the taxpayer, on average, about 40% of their income (middle class worker, all taxes – state, federal, social security, medicare, property, sales) to receive these services.

(2) The government workers receive, in addition to their normal pay, funded by these taxes, pensions that are, on average, five times better than what taxpayers get from social security (the average government pension is $60K per year with an average retirement age of 55, the average social security benefit is $15K per year with an average retirement age of 65).

(3) The government workers tell the taxpayers – don’t worry – you don’t have to pay additional taxes for us to get these generous pensions, because we’ll invest the money on Wall Street, and Wall Street will earn 7.75% per year on these investments.

(4) Wall Street invests the taxpayer’s money, funneled through [...] Read More

Special Interests vs. Fiscal Reform

It is impossible to easily summarize all of the efforts government worker unions have mounted in California to consolidate their power. But the efforts by these unions to disrupt reform initiative efforts, as well as undermine the initiative process itself, is worthy of special mention, and is the focus of this post.

As Californians realize that unions stand firmly opposed to reducing government worker pay and benefits as one way to reduce government deficits, and further realize that their elected officials are controlled by these unions and unable to enact reforms, the citizens initiative has become their tool of last resort. Across the state, grassroots organizations have mounted initiatives designed to reduce government expenditures – through banning Project Labor Agreements, or right-sizing government worker pensions, or through campaign finance reforms that target unions alongside large corporations. These measures constitute a profound threat to government union power.

Here are some of the ways government worker unions have spent millions of dollars over the past six months to fight reform through the initiative process:

MISINFORMATION TO THEIR OWN MEMBERSHIP: In mid-July the SEIU created a “think before you ink” flyer filled with misinformation and distortions regarding a major threat to their power, the “Stop Special Interests” initiative that would ban corporations or unions from withholding money from paychecks to finance political activity. The flyer claims, for example, that “business donates more to politics than unions by a ratio of 15-1.” Actually in California the unions spend more than business on [...] Read More

The Impact of Tax Exempt Pensions

It is surprisingly difficult to gather data on just how many public safety employees claim disability in their retirements, but this should not prevent us from estimating what the benefits bestowed on disability claimants cost taxpayers.

A common program to compensate public safety workers for job-related disabilities is to grant them a tax exemption, whereby 50% of their retirement pension is exempt from state and federal taxes. While it is virtually impossible to collect data from pension fund administrators on exactly how many retired public safety workers have retired with this benefit, a 2004 investigative report by the Sacramento Bee found that among retired members of the California Highway Patrol, 66% of the rank and file officers, and 82% of the chiefs retired with service disabilities. Similarly, a 2006 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury found that two-thirds of San Jose Firefighters retired with service disabilities. Neither of these reports remain available online, although a Google search on the term “Chief’s Disease” (a term coined by the Sacramento Bee) will find dozens of secondary references to these studies; you can start here, and here.

The point of this analysis, other than to point out the shocking lack of comprehensive data on this issue, is to perform a what-if, based on assumptions that might be reasonably extrapolated from the available data.

The first section of the table below, “Impact per Worker,” shows what a person receiving a service disability tax exemption is really making annually, based [...] Read More

Proposed California Laws to Protect Special Interests

The agenda of California’s union-controlled state politicians is to do whatever they can to increase the amount of tax revenue flowing into the government, and increase the amount of dues revenue flowing into the coffers of government worker unions. This isn’t news, and any law they pass can be appropriately viewed in this context. But beyond grasping for tax revenue ala AB 155, which imposes sales tax on internet purchases, or grasping for union dues revenue ala SB 104, which (vetoed this time) would have imposed unionization via “card check” on agricultural workers, California’s union-controlled legislature is enacting laws that will change the ground rules of politics and governance.

The purpose of these laws, too numerous to compile, is to consolidate the power of public sector unions and ensure that government of the government workers, by the government workers, and for the government workers, will be the perpetual fate of California. As citizens awaken to the fact that government workers in California, on average, make twice as much money and work half as many hours in their careers as the taxpayers who support them, a seismic wave of reform sentiment gathers. To prepare for this tsunami, California’s government worker unions are building a seawall of regulations, many of them buried within budgets and unrelated new statutes. Here are just a few:

AB 114 – Dramatically reduces local financial control of school districts; prohibits layoffs; removes requirement for school [...] Read More

Nonpartisan Public Sector Union Reformers

To declare that union reform, public sector union reform in particular, is a nonpartisan cause, is certain to attract vociferous challenges from defenders of unions, but events continue to trump ideology.

As documented in an earlier post “The Democratic Party War,” even in California, a state where public sector unions wield nearly absolute control, there are increasing numbers of prominent democrats who are standing up to the unions. They include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former State Senator Gloria Romero, President of the California NAACP Alice Huffman, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and Matt Gonzalez, former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. From education reform to pension rollbacks, Democrats are lining up to make hard choices in California, staring down union power in the process.

A series of similar reality checks are happening all over the United States, as Democrats realize the agenda of public sector unions is often in direct conflict with their ability to fund government programs and infrastructure projects. As reported in the New York Times earlier this week in an article entitled “Cuomo Secures Big Givebacks in Union Deal,” a democratic governor in a union stronghold is making tough decisions in an attempt to restore budget solvency. As reported on June 21st on the website “Intercepts,” in a post entitled “Rage Against the Machine,” Democratic lawmakers in [...] Read More