Charles Lane Comes Out Against Freedom of Contract

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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.