Union rights benefit all of us

Collective bargaining makes for a better public workforce

March 07, 2011|By Elizabeth J. Kennedy

As the campaign to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights advances across the Midwest, taxpayers — whom the abolishment of such rights is alleged to benefit — deserve a complete accounting of what they also stand to lose.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has characterized public sector workers as the "haves" to the private sector's "have nots." This should strike all but the most removed from working people as absurd. Since when have teachers, social workers, nurses, cops, firefighters and sanitation workers been the "haves" of the American economy?

With the backing of powerful corporate interests, Governor Walker has tried to pin the blame for his state's, and the nation's, economic woes on the very men and women bearing the brunt of the selfish, destructive actions of the true "haves": the architects of the nation's financial collapse. Public employees have been furloughed, laid off and downsized, and yet they are still willing to make major financial concessions. They have taken not one but many hits, for a team against which the owners have repeatedly bet.

Ten years ago, I helped public employees in California organize to make their workplaces safer, their families' standards of living higher, and their voices on the job stronger. These men and women were not the "haves." They were university and hospital employees, many of whom were overqualified for the low-wage jobs they held. They, too, pay federal, state and local taxes, and they appreciate the trust that those public monies confer. But taxpayer trust and sustainable workplaces are not mutually exclusive. Neither are healthy state economies and strong public sector unions. Indeed, when public employees have the right to bargain collectively, taxpayers reap the following benefits:

Taxpayers benefit from transparent, democratic, safe workplaces. Public employers are stewards of our taxpayer dollars, and fiscal responsibility requires transparency, oversight and efficiency. Front-line workers are often best poised to expose fraud and mismanagement, but they are less likely to do so if they fear retaliation or termination. Strong public employee unions can make it more likely that those workers will blow the whistle when our tax dollars are being misused. Likewise, when workers are empowered to speak up about unsafe conditions or negotiate for better protective gear, we all benefit from safer workplaces, fewer compensation claims and reduced health care and disability costs.

Taxpayers benefit from a high-quality public workforce. Governor Walker wants to eliminate the kinds of benefits that attract and retain highly educated and qualified public employees. In my field, the public sector attracts talented lawyers who could make more money in private practice by offering competitive benefits, career development and a sustainable work/life balance. The same is true across the public sector. By making long-term investments in their employees, public employers can reduce the direct and indirect costs to taxpayers of turnover, training and hiring.

Taxpayers benefit from higher-quality services. My sister is a young woman with severe developmental disabilities. Her quality of life is directly related to the quality of care she receives, most of which is paid for by tax dollars. As a sister, and as a taxpayer, I want that money to be used to retain qualified and compassionate caregivers, rather than on an expensive revolving door of marginalized workers. I want those employees to speak freely about workplace issues that could impact the quality of her care and to report abuse without fear of retaliation. The public's access to high-quality public services is at stake in the battle over collective bargaining rights for public employees.

I believe in public sector unions. I believe in democratic workplaces. I believe that Americans cannot be duped into thinking that our friends, family members and neighbors who work in the public sector are the enemy, are responsible for the widening gap between the "haves" and "have nots" or are undeserving of the basic rights to organize for better working conditions.

Unions, like all organizations, are never perfect. Effective, democratic unions require members who are active and engaged and leaders who are responsive and accountable. Those unions have always played a leading role in raising workplace standards for all workers. The benefits we reap from their continued ability to do so will be won or lost in these battles raging from Maine to Florida, from Wisconsin to Ohio.

Elizabeth J. Kennedy is assistant professor in the Law & Social Responsibility Department, Sellinger School of Business & Management, at Loyola University Maryland. Her e-mail is ejkennedy@loyola.edu.

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