The Economics of Union Busting

George Berry, Columnist

The recent passage of SB5 in the Ohio State Senate marks another blow to the workers’ right to negotiate with large and often impersonal employers. If the bill passes the House, Ohio’s 350,000 public workers would be allowed only a certain type of arbitration, with ultimate power held by state and local governments. But Ohio’s budget problems are severe and require drastic changes — even if cutting compensation is the wrong change. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, who has emboldened the likes of John Kasich, faces far less severe budget problems. His insistence on “economic necessity,” however, has given union-busting proposals an air of legitimacy. It seems that Kasich, Florida’s Rick Scott and others have been able to demand more drastic changes as a result of Walker’s manufactured crisis. After all, almost anything they do will be less extreme than Walker’s call-in-the-National-Guard stance.

So how severe are these “budget crises”? In Wisconsin, the state faces a shortfall of about one-eighth of revenue over the next two years. In comparison with this relatively small number, New Jersey faced a shortfall of almost 40 percent this year, and Ohio faces a 25 percent shortfall over the next two years. Wisconsin’s deficit would seem to require fine-tuning rather than something as drastic as, say, enacting a $6,000 per year compensation cut on the average teacher. But this is the proposal, and Ohio and Florida have followed by proposing massive cuts to public employee compensation, particularly teachers.

Much of the argument made by Walker and others hinges on the notion that public workers are overpaid. If the deficit exists and public workers all have “Cadillac” health insurance and lavish pensions, we are fixing the problem fairly, right? Not quite — the question of whether state workers are overpaid is complex and varies widely by area, but The New York Times remarks that “government work tends to be in highly skilled categories,” noting that nationally state government workers possess college degrees at nearly twice the rate of public sector workers. Further, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that public sector workers in Wisconsin are underpaid given their level of education.

Someone with a college degree can expect to be compensated (including benefits) $61,500 working for the government and $82,000 working in the private sector—and the gap widens as the level of education increases. This certainly doesn’t hold across every state, but it is interesting that the “bellwether state” for union rights involves a governor trying to cut the salaries of undercompensated state workers.

If we look a little more deeply, the Wisconsin executive branch budget for 2011–2013 concedes that only $1.5 billion of the two-year deficit is anything related to employee compensation. There is no rationale provided for how it was determined that a cost overrun is due only to underpaid employees. The $1.3 billion per year prison system or the $890 million per year property tax relief program go unaddressed. This — and the preliminary passage of a Wisconsin bill simply stripping collective bargaining rights —indicates that Walker’s drive comes from an ideology that dictates little compensation is fair compensation. This is to state the obvious, but the pile of economic jargon and the talk of “standing with the hard-working taxpayers of Wisconsin” (but not teachers) turns out to provide quite a lot of cover for this policy and those of other governors around the country.

Somehow, even in face of growing disapproval of Wisconsin-style union busting, the Republicans still have a monopoly on “fiscal responsibility.” But if we analyze the effects of a Wisconsin-style policy (or an Ohio- or Florida-style policy), the results are likely to have questionable economic effects. Taking so much money out of economy overnight causes a sharp reduction in demand, which in turn leads to less job creation. Walker’s vision of “creating 250,000 jobs by 2015” is likely to be fictitious unless those are low paying positions that replace better jobs. And the specific anti-teacher sentiment unleashed by Wisconsin, but taking root in Ohio, New Jersey, New York and so on can only marginalize the profession, lower the bar for educators, and ultimately produce a far less skilled workforce.

Wisconsin is certainly a latecomer to state fiscal crises — California has been mired in one for years. But Scott Walker and his backers certainly have energized the section of the country that thinks the employer should dictate terms of employment. Here’s hoping that the Democratic State Senators and the people of Wisconsin keep fighting until Walker is willing to really negotiate, and that Americans continue to “wake up” to the reality that losses for some often mean losses for all.