Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rule No. 1: Always have someone to blame

Several years ago, in the course of my work, I sat before a public utility commission hearing and argued that restrictions should be put on a large telephone company because they spent so much money on marketing that my employer, a smaller phone company, couldn't compete.  It was a stupid argument, but in my line of work one sometimes makes such arguments in the hope that someone will bite.  This commission didn't, but we all had a good laugh and I got credit for trying.

Yesterday I sat through a discussion of public employee pension benefits and how they are, at turns, outlandishly lavish, unfair to private sector workers, bankrupting our society.  And the blame for all this was laid at the feet of the public employee unions.  The arguments were that the unions control the elections so they determine against whom they have to negotiate; the unions give so much member money to politicians that the pols are afraid to vote against union positions lest they be attacked by said union and it's money.  And, the unions spend so much member money in elections that they can control the outcome be it a candidate or an initiative.  I thought the whole argument sounded vaguely familiar and equally stupid.

In Orange County, CA there are scant few elected officials that are pro-union and yet in almost every instance it was elected officials who sat across from union officials and negotiated/bargained for the benefits the union members now enjoy.  Was it union money that elected these officials?  Not likely.  So the officials were elected by someone and something other than unions and their money and yet, the unions still received extraordinary pension benefits in their contracts.

Did the unions "buy" these elections with their money?  Perhaps, but you'd hard pressed to find a conservative/Republican politician in OC who's willing to 1) accept union money or 2) admit to having accepted union money.  So the electeds were not bought off by union money and yet, the unions were granted really good benefits.

Finally, is it unfair that unions "have so much member money they can control the outcome of elections?"  Maybe, but the other side of that coin is there is another special interest that has a lot of money--business interests.  Admittedly they're not as well organized as unions (unless you consider Chambers of Commerce), but they do have a lot of money and could very well use it in elections if they saw fit.  The Supreme Court's made it much easier for business to spend such money in elections.

Here's my take: elected officials won't stand up to pressure put on them to do things that often don't make sense.  They won't tell a union "no, you can't have that lavish pension benefit."  I have no idea why that is, but it's clearly true.  It's not a question of who has the most money or even a question of fairness.  The plain fact is that elected officials at the city, county and state levels negotiated and then voted to give contracts to public employee unions and those contracts have extraordinarily generous pension benefits.  Now they want to renege on those contracts for a variety of what are probably very good reasons, but renege nonetheless.  And they want to blame the unions for what?  Bargaining and then accepting those contracts. 

I said I thought it was a stupid argument.

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