Terry Paulson

Larry Kudlow reports: “Nationwide, state and local government unions have a 45 percent total-compensation advantage over their private-sector counterpart.” Now, aware of the imbalance, more voters are electing politicians committed to limiting union power and renegotiating unsustainable contracts.

Wisconsin’s visible battle is just a tip of the iceberg that unions face. Private sector union membership has declined steadily in recent decades from over 35 percent 40 years ago to barely 7 percent today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate for public sector workers is over seven times higher at 36.2 percent.

Outside of government, the labor movement in America is barely alive. Unions have become irrelevant to most working people. Why? First, more leaders have moved from historical command-and-control models to more engaging strategies that encourage commitment and involvement. Leadership Engagement Surveys have shown improved trust in leadership and overall job satisfaction. Second, unions depend on a sizeable number of dissatisfied employees and a desire to want to stay in their current job. The new Y generation seems to have no patience for staying in a job they don’t enjoy. If the job isn’t working out for them, they’re ready to leave for another opportunity.

Martin Feldstein notes a glaring difference between the success of public and private unions: “Since governments, unlike private firms, don’t have to compete with products from abroad or from other producers, they can often pay higher union wages and pass those costs along in higher taxes.”

Frightened people fight change. Public union members are frightened, and they’re fighting changes that could ultimately help them and the public they are called to serve.

New approaches are revolutionizing government incentive systems. Mark Aesch, CEO of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, took over the money-losing Rochester transit system five years ago. Inefficiencies have been addressed, service has improved, fares have actually been lowered, and deficits have been turned into a multimillion-dollar surplus. While neighboring transit systems in Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo have increased fares, Rochester has instituted a performance system that rewards public workers for performance and results. Instead of fighting change, public workers are now benefitting from higher wages and public support for improved service. The four neighboring New York transit authorities are now negotiating to join the party!

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Gov. Walker spoke of his hope to balance the state budget and to free schools and local governments to have the tools needed to reward productive workers and improve operational efficiencies. Commenting on Indiana’s changes in collective bargaining six years earlier, Gov. Walker said, “The average pay for Indiana state employees has actually increased, and high-performing employees are rewarded with pay increases or bonuses….”

Change is coming. May it be done with collaboration instead of rancor. May the shared sacrifices instituted be fair, and may they set the stage for renewed optimism where public and private workers can share in a more balanced, profitable and sustainable future.

Terry Paulson

Terry Paulson, PhD is a psychologist, award-winning professional speaker, author of The Optimism Advantage: 50 Simple Truths to Transform Your Attitudes and Actions into Results, and long-time columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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