Growing up in northern Minnesota, Labor Day was a special day. Minnesota was a heavily unionized state. One of my uncles was a union heavy equipment operator on the Mesabi Iron Range. My brother-in-law spent an entire career as a teamster in Minneapolis.
They were proud of their association with the union and happy to pay their dues in return for fairly negotiated contracts. Compared to their non-union neighbors, union members were well paid.
In the 1950’s more than 35 percent of all Americans in private sector jobs were in a union. Their dues supported offices and staff to oversee all of the union’s activity. They paid good salaries to their leaders and staff and they put significant amounts of money into the political process.
While union leaders cared deeply about the wages and benefits of their members, they also cared about their country. They believed that a strong and successful nation was good for their members.
Supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama respond during his speech at the annual AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island September 7, 2009 in Cincinnati Ohio. President Obama spoke to union members about his administration's recovery plan and proposed health care reform. (Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images)
There were disputes and strikes to be sure, but in the end it was in the interest of both sides that the company be successful.
On Labor Day both labor and management celebrated all that was right in their relationship. It was not uncommon for all employees of a company to celebrate the day together. There were picnics at the many lakes in Minnesota with swimming for the kids and fishing for the adults.
On that day we were all Americans and grateful for a bountiful life.
Labor Day is different today. It is a holiday that marks the end of summer. That’s about all.
Today only 6.7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. New union membership is in the government sector in which more than 35 percent belong to unions.
Fifty years ago private sector employees made more money than government workers, but the public sector employees had better security and benefits. Today those working in the public sector continue to have better security and benefits than their counterparts in the private sector, but they also make about 30 percent more in total compensation.
Public sector employees earn on average 30 percent more than those in the private sector. They also experience higher rates of job security and better benefits. National Park Service employees remove barricades from the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
They have another advantage too. They do not have to use their union dues for office rent or payroll for their leaders. Union leaders in government unions remain on the federal payroll and in federal offices while spending 100 percent of their time on union business.
In 2011 there were 285 union leaders in the Internal Reveune Service who spent full time on union activity while on the federal payroll. We spent $155 million that year on workers in all agencies who did no government work at all.
Public sector unions can focus their dues money on political activity electing the very people who will negotiate their next contract.
The votes to improve that contract are always incremental and always promise to have a neutral impact on next year’s budget.
For example, a modest bill will be introduced to change the basis for retirement benefits from the average of the last five years’ income to the last four years.
Later it will be moved to the last three years. The centerpiece of the argument is always that it has no budget impact. And it doesn’t. Pension spending is off budget.
However, the changes have a huge impact on future claims on the pension fund. Ultimately the impact on the budget would be felt with the requirement of increased contributions to that fund.
Small adjustments with no immediate budget impact are easy to vote for. And easy to game.
Services Employees International Union is the union that supports federal workers - the union leaders are also government employees. Photo Credit: SEIU
In their last year of work policemen and firemen work hundreds of hours of overtime to boost the base income against which their retirement benefit is predicated. More than 10 percent of the firefighters and policemen who retired in New York state in 2011 are receiving more than $100,000 per year in retirement.
The role of unions in the federal government was recently exhibited in the IRS fraud against conservative groups. Only two people in the IRS are political employees. The union runs the day-to-day activity of the agency. The IRS scandal was a union operation against people who didn’t agree with them.
It was in the union’s interest to stop the political activity of the conservative groups who wanted less government.
Government unions want a bigger government resulting in more dues paying union members and a bigger political fund to elect people who will look favorably on them at the next contract time.
When the fraud was uncovered, acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told the Congress that he was cancelling the $70 million in bonuses budgeted for IRS employees.
“No you aren’t!” said the union leader. And he couldn’t. It was in the contract. While their job is government policy, their métier is union policy.
n this Sept. 6, 2010 photo Rick Mullin, left, then a Democratic candidate for Iowa Sentate, serves food with other statewide candidates at a Labor Day picnic in Sioux City, Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court voted 5-0 Friday, May 16, 2014 to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Republican Sen. Rick Bertrand saying Bertrand cannot sue for defamation over Mullin's campaign ad, his 2010 Democratic opponent, that misleadingly suggested he marketed dangerous drugs to children. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal, Jim Lee)
Bob Chanin, top attorney for the National Education Association, told their convention in 2009 that their effectiveness as a union was not because they cared about children or public schools. Their effectiveness was because they paid hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year to “advance their interests as education employees.”
In the private sector the ultimate goal is the best contract that can be reached while keeping the company economically prosperous so that union jobs will last for the long haul.
Government has no bottom line. If the union contract cripples the government, politicians will just have to raise taxes.
With the totally disparate interests held by public and private sector union members there is very little that attracts them to the same Labor Day picnic.
Very few taxpayers are anxious to go fishing with the Service Employees International Union since the union views the taxpayers as chumps and the taxpayers view them as parasites.
There will not be a picnic in Myrtle, Mississippi this year. That’s OK with me. I can go fishing with my grandsons.
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