by Matthew Knee

Yesterday was a good day for the reformers. Prosser seems to have won, and Tuesday’s election holds promising signs for the recalls. However, the fight in Wisconsin is far from over, and is likely to repeat itself in other states. While all professional campaign messages should be properly polled or focus-grouped, this post will examine some existing evidence for how best to approach public sector union reform. Going forward, reformers must learn to counter the psychological advantages that large, sympathetic special interest groups such as professional public sector unions have in shaping public opinion. Like many reformers such as the National Right To Work Committee and Chris Christie, it is important to support the workers while opposing the unions. Additionally, it is important to properly gauge the local political climate and calibrate aggressiveness accordingly.

While Americans pay lip service to fiscal conservatism in theory, they are reluctant to be the “bad guy” when it comes to actual cuts. Liberal policies tend to benefit sympathetic constituencies, and the left knows how to take advantage of this good will, not only by highlighting the plight of their underdog beneficiaries, but by defining their opponents as members of unsympathetic groups such as “the rich” or “big business.”

Identification, affinity, and disaffinity are important aspects of public opinion. One of the better theories of partisanship is that individuals identify with the party whose members they identify with. People are Democrats or Republicans because they look at who belongs to each party and see themselves as Democrat or Republican kinds of people. People also have strong emotional associations with groups, especially those that they associate with themselves. Mentioning a group as a victim or beneficiary of a policy can prime these emotional responses or associate them with certain viewpoints.

While Americans generally hold mixed to mildly supportive views of public employee unions in general, they tend to hold unionized government professions such as policemen and teachers in very high regard. In a recent poll, Americans supported unionization of government employees in well-regarded, high-status professions such as firefighters, police officers, and teachers by a 2-1 or greater margin, but were about evenly divided on office workers and janitors. Practically, this is illogical – lower-skilled, commoditized labor is more suitable for unionization, and public safety employees are especially poorly-suited for unionization. The same series of polls showed that labor union leaders are regarded as not demonstrating much honesty and ethics (even lawyers fair better!), and another found that organized labor is about as trusted as big business. This suggests that people do not always make the distinction between the public service professionals most commonly associated with government workers and the union bosses that represent them, and thus public opinion on public sector unions tends to represent a confused mix of the two. Reformers must hammer home these distinctions if they are to garner public sympathy.

In hindsight, attacking collective bargaining was among the riskiest ways of counteracting the budgetary effects of powerful public sector unions. It polls much worse than many other reformist ideas and affinities, in part because it difficult to portray collective bargaining limitations as in the interests of the workers. One can argue that union bosses use their collective bargaining power to enact unjust work rules or unsustainable policies that can lead to layoffs and unfunded pensions in the long run, but true as this may be, it is not intuitive and raises questions of budget priorities. Thus, major limitations on collective bargaining might be out of reach in some states in which significant reforms are nevertheless achievable.

Instead (or, additionally), reformers may want to focus on policies that can be shown to enhance workers rights and uphold American values. This is not just because they sound better, but because such policies really do protect workers from being exploited by political machines that both take and spend their money without proper consent.

The power of public sector unions is built on a network of coercive laws and policies beyond collusive collective bargaining, many of which were also implemented in Wisconsin, though discussed less in the media. Reformers could focus on passing Right To Work laws ensuring individual government workers the right to choose not only to decline to join a union, but the right not to pay fees to workplace unions they refuse to join. Failing that, reformers could pass laws creating the right not to have money taken automatically from government workers’ hard-earned paychecks and given to politicians and causes not of their choosing without their consent. Reformers should promote more democracy in the workplace, forcing union re-certification elections more regularly and ensuring a secret ballot to prevent intimidation of workers. Public sector union reform should carry the banners of freedom of association, of freedom of speech, of democracy, of freedom of choice, and of good governance. Reformers can win by giving workers more rights, not by taking them away.

Reformers should also fight for just and fair workplace rules, not those based on the power of the established over younger workers. Seniority works for the unions because it promotes solidarity rather than competition among union members, but seniority is neither fair to quality employees nor an effective way to encourage good work. Merit should play a large role in pay, promotion, and retention. For instance, good, dynamic young teachers must not be fired to protect incompetent, clock-punching lifers. Reformers should make examples of government employees, especially teachers, who are good at their jobs but get pink slipped due to a lack of seniority. Reformers should also find more “rubber rooms” and other collections of incompetent but unfireable tenured public employees to demonstrate who gets to keep their jobs instead.

The left portrays unions as the opponents and counterparts of big, evil corporations, which while false, fits the commonly-held but simplistic narrative of business and labor as naturally opposing forces. Unlike public service professionals, the reputations of businessmen, the rich, and big corporations are very weak. The left will portray reformers’ efforts as scapegoating teachers and other sympathetic professions while cutting taxes on the rich.

One solution is to only target public sector unions. Leave corporations out of the equation. Our state and local budget deficits largely stem from public sector unions, not private sector unions. Targeting only public sector unions creates a powerful case that this is about balancing budgets and reining in out of control government, rather than destroying an opposing set of interest groups. It also allows reformers to argue that public sector unions are especially problematic due to their collusive, rather than adversarial, relationship with many of those they negotiate with, and could dampen enthusiasm for retaliation among the nearly half of union members who work in the private sector.

We know from Wisconsin, however, that public sector unions will make the case that big corporations and the rich are behind their opposition anyway. Reformers in the most precarious of political positions might consider bundling systemic changes that solve the public sector union problem with some amount of pain for corporations and/or “the rich,” so as to show that they are making everyone share in the sacrifices budget balancing requires. There is plenty of anti-market, winner-picking crony capitalism worth targeting. This could neutralize the left’s emotional attacks with a powerful appeal to intuitive perceptions of fairness.

This is not to say that reformers should not stand strong or that collective bargaining is a third rail. It looks like the reformers in Wisconsin may yet prove that it is not, and unwillingness to spend political capital on important issues misses the point of good representative government. Nor am I saying that reformers should not raise awareness of shady union bosses or overly-generous labor agreements. However, it is important to connect with voters’ emotions and identities in such a way that they know the reformers are the good guys.

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