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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Charles Lane Comes Out Against Freedom of Contract

Charles Lane Comes Out Against Freedom of Contract

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 07:50

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane took great leaps in philosophical thinking today, coming down firmly against freedom of contract when it comes to public sector unions. In the course of the discussion Lane develops several new principles for guiding public sector policy.

The starting point is whether public sector workers can sign contracts that require all the workers who are represented by a union to pay for that representation. The courts have long upheld that workers could negotiate such contracts. The remedy for workers who feel so strongly opposed to unions that they don't want anything to do with them is to work for a different employer.

It is difficult to see why other workers should be forced to pay for a worker's representation. Under the law, non-union workers not only get the same pay and benefits as everyone else covered by the union contract, they also are entitled to representation by the union in a grievance or disciplinary action. This is the rationale for requiring them to pay for representation even though they do not have to pay for union activities, such as supporting political candidates.

But Lane is going beyond just this issue that the Supreme Court is now considering. He apparently wants to outlaw public sector unions. He writes:

"Is public-sector collective bargaining in the public interest?

"The answer is no. All members of the public use schools, roads, parks and other government services — and pay taxes to support them. Their interest lies in receiving the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period."

I kind of like this one. The public's interest is in the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period."

Let's see, the government pays for lots of things like computers, paper, desks and chairs for school kids. Why should we pay for them? Why not just take them from the companies that produce them? After all, "the public's interest is in the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period." 

Do you think that might be wrong, that it might be stealing? What part of Lane's declaration don't you understand?

Maybe we could get people to work for lower pay if we threatened them or their families. Remember "the public's interest is in the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period."


I could go on, but this is already too silly. Those of us who are not Charles Lane believe that we have to respect people's rights and that takes priority over getting "the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period." And this has long included the right for workers to bargain collectively, which may not in every case mean that we are getting the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost, just as every government purchase of a computer or school desk doesn't necessarily involve getting the best price.

Lane's indictment of the inefficiency of unions is more scattershot logic. He tells readers in the first paragraph:

"Union-negotiated pension benefits are linked to the fiscal plight of cities from San Jose to bankrupt Detroit."

Yes, and so are electricity bills. Cities have to pay workers, it is one of their expenses. The average non-uniformed Detroit public employee has a pension of $18,500 in addition to their Social Security. (Many public employees don't get Social Security, a fact often left out of discussions of public sector pensions.)  Does Lane expect to live on less than this in retirement? 

Lane then goes on to complain about the role of teachers unions:

"In any case, even well-paid unionized public workers still strike, as Chicago’s teachers proved in 2012 and the San Francisco Bay Area’s transit workers did in 2013.

"Conversely, there is no public-sector collective bargaining in Virginia, but it’s not some hotbed of labor unrest. Can anyone who looks at this country’s urban school systems seriously maintain that unionization makes for an efficient workforce?"

Of course the teachers' strike in Chicago enjoyed the overwhelming support of the parents' of school children. Perhaps they were hoodwinked, but these parents apparently felt that their children would benefit if the teachers' demands were met. As far as looking at the country's urban school systems to determine the impact of unions, there are plenty of urban school systems throughout the south where teachers are not covered by union contracts. Do these systems stand out as providing superior education?

But the best line comes in reference to the Illinois home health care workers who have filed a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court:

"Actually, 40 percent of those workers opted to deduct the cost of the SEIU’s political activity from their dues, according to a review of Labor Department records by the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. That unusually high figure suggests the workers don’t think unionization is such a good deal."

Of course the immediate issue is whether they want money deducted to pay for SEIU's political activity, not whether they think unionization is a good deal. And of course if they don't think it is a good deal, they have the option to vote out the union, as many workers have done over the years.

But presumably the point of Lane's piece is that public sector unions are a good deal for their members. His complaint is that they result in taxpayers spending more on public sector services than would otherwise be the case. Now he's telling us that unions don't actually get their members any benefits. 

Oh well, it's the Washington Post.  

Comments (20)Add Comment
Origin of specious argument
written by Squeezed Turnip, January 28, 2014 7:46
Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Hard ti say. But it's pretty clear that, in nature, the bull came before bullshit. But not so with Charles Lane:
"Union-negotiated pension benefits are linked to the fiscal plight of cities from San Jose to bankrupt Detroit."

Uh, Charles, what about the role of economic pressures conning naive fund managers into investing in worthless paper? In this case, the bullshit took the bull by its horns.
damn you, autocorrect
written by Squeezed Turnip, January 28, 2014 7:51
"predators", not "pressures".
There are a lot of Charles Lanes out there
written by Jennifer, January 28, 2014 8:04
"Those of us who are not Charles Lane believe that we have to respect people's rights and that takes priority over getting "the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost."

Unfortunately, I hear this all the time, even from people who claim to be "pro-union"-the pubic sector is "different". It's interesting how public sector workers salaries and pensions-whether state or federal-are acceptable whipping posts for the economy. Private corporations who do business with the public sector (often exclusively), not so much.

"Can anyone who looks at this country’s urban school systems seriously maintain that unionization makes for an efficient workforce?"

Actually most of the best-performing school districts feature unionized teachers, so yes, I think you can. Also note the word "urban" which is basically code for black. Most suburban schools are unionized as well (i.e. if the "urban" areas are) yet nobody pushes for charter schools/privatization there.

And yes, there is NO WAY the Chicago teachers union could have pulled off the strike without support of the parents. That's a lot of people to "hoodwink".
Let's Bring Back the Draft
written by David H, January 28, 2014 8:07
Instead of a military draft, let's have a teacher's draft. Maybe set a starting pay of $10,000. And let's make sure Charles Lane has lottery number one. I'm sure he'll be happy to go to work for $10,000 and save taxpayers money.
my freedom to restrict your contracting...., Low-rated comment [Show]
Charles Lane, Nickel and Dime Expert: Idiot When It Comes to Hundred Dollar Bills
written by Last Mover, January 28, 2014 9:02
The fundamental problem is collective bargaining. It is appropriate in the private sector, where workers bargain with private, profit-making corporations, not the taxpaying citizenry — and where market forces provide an independent check on both sides’ demands. In the public sector, however, it means higher costs, lower efficiency and, worst of all, less democracy.

Oh yeah baby, like you know, those private contractors who pillage and plunder the government to no end with outrageous pay, bonuses and cost overruns that make ordinary unions look like child's play. In many cases they can barely cough up added value at all because they're already drowning in rent-seeking subtracted value.

But they're not unions are they Charles Lane. They're private, profit-making corporations aren't they, not connected to the taxpaying citizenry in any sort of extortionary way are they. They don't engage in collective bargaining do they.

No sireee, they just do business by freedom of contract don't they, competing fiercely with each other among the multitude of government monopsony buyers don't they.

You know, like any ordinary monopoly corporatist predator in the private sector for which collective bargaining with employees is "appropriate", and for their customers, with take-it-or-leave-it "freedom of contracts" loaded with fine print that can change anytime.

As any sock puppet for the 1% knows, if you take care of the irrelevant nickels and dimes, the relevant hundred dollar bills will take care of themselves won't they.
written by Alex Bollinger, January 28, 2014 9:05
I love it that someone whose living depends entirely on intellectual property rights protections is advocating that getting the "lowest price possible" should be the goal of the government. Great! Allow any website out there to cut-n-paste WaPo articles! Let people photocopy the Washington Post and hand it out for a quarter on any street corner in the DC area! That's what the government should be doing, according to Charles Lane: getting people services at the lowest price possible!

David H.: Do whatever you want with Charles Lane, but think about the children. What did they ever do to deserve a punishment like being forced to listen to Charles Lane?
written by Kat, January 28, 2014 10:15
Essentially, what you are calling freedom to contract is the freedom to stop others from contracting freely. Is this language directly from "1984"?

Pete, I hope you were leveling this charge at Lane because this describes his position exactly.
Kat...Hardly..., Low-rated comment [Show]
Watch 2 Much Fox News
written by Get Real, January 28, 2014 11:49
When workers want a wage so they might some days move up to the middle class, that's robbing the public from a better price.

When the powerful grps effectively created rent on the public and robbed them from a lower price, that's called helping the "job creators."

Doctors = AMA

Bankers = ABA

Realtors = NAR

Builders = NAHB

Business = U.S. Chamber of Commerce

And we complain about the influence of teachers' union?
Oh, have they rebranded high unemployment as a "vibrant labor market"
written by Kat, January 28, 2014 11:54
From where I sit it is the the city council members or state development officials who, in closed door sessions dole out goodies to CEOs that wreck havoc on communities. These are the fruits of a "vibrant labor market".
Let's be clear ...
written by John Puma, January 28, 2014 2:26
For the GOP, and bit too high a proportion of Dems, ONLY slavery is "in the public interest," and, of course, in the private interest, too.

written by djb, January 28, 2014 3:17
"the public's interest is in the highest-quality services at the lowest feasible cost. Period."

which is why in nj school systems have to buy books as supplies from a few politically connected suppliers that charge gouging prices
written by Dryly 42, January 28, 2014 3:27
Ah. Lane has identified the real cause of our problems over the last 30 years. Unions. Never mind that working men and women have so little voice today that they are only referred to when the monthly unemployment statistics are released. And then, they are not referred to a working men and women, they are called "the labor market" not unlike the cattle market or the hog market.

As for freedom of contract, after the economic system collapsed when Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008 and 13 of the largest 14 financial institutions were insolvent or on the brink before they were bailed out all bonus's were honored. It was said, even for AIG which was nationalized, that the "sanctity of the contract" required this. And they were notwithstanding the insolvency. Public sector contracts do not, apparently, meet the standard for such "sanctity".
written by charluckles, January 28, 2014 6:34
Where is this fantasy world where you can expect to attract the highest quality applicants to a job by making that employment as horrible as possible with little to no ability to represent oneself and argue for increases in pay and benefits?
Lane's simplistic understanding of Unions
written by Berick, January 28, 2014 6:38
First, Lane seems to think Unions only advocate for higher pay and better working conditions. I know from experience that they often advocate for a better work product. For example, nurses unions that fight for a lower number of beds per nurse not just to make their lives easier but for the benefit of the patients.

Second, Lane seems to think "lower pay" equals "better service per dollar" in a very simple equation. It isn't that simple. When a Union earns better pay and conditions for members, the workplace is more attractive to a better-educated, more-motivated applicant and will more readily retain good workers who otherwise could move elsewhere. That means a higher-quality service.
Republican math
written by Alan in SF, January 28, 2014 7:01
Curious. It's in the public interest to get the highest quality teaching and street-sweeping at the lowest possible cost, but for health care it doesn't matter at all.
Clearly, Slaves and Prisoners
written by David Minor, January 28, 2014 7:06
Lane's logic reduces to forced labor camps, slavery, prison, involuntary servitude of all sorts.
It's in the public interest to have gold-plated weapons systems
written by RepubAnon, January 28, 2014 10:33
Here's an idea: Let's apply Charles Lane's logic to the industrial portion of the military-industrial complex, and have Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and the rest of the contractors agree to an across-the-board 40% cut in the value of their contracts. Hey, it's in the public interest.

We could probably fund this by having all employees of government contractors get paid at Civil Service pay levels. Think of all the money saved on CEO salaries.

written by John Yard, January 29, 2014 3:14
Part of the rationale for public sector pensions is that , overall, career and professional advancement in the public sector is less then that in the private sector. In exchange , the public sector worker gets a
pension ( almost absent from the private sector ).
Why anyone would teach in a public school absent a
pension given the low overall wages and poor possibility
of advancement is a mystery to me.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.