Motherhood requires many virtues. It takes patience to spoon food into a baby's mouth and to teach a child how to sound out words. Moms need endurance to wipe up never-ending spills and to wake up in the middle of the night to feed and comfort. Motherhood also demands a keen sense of fairness. Moms not only have to discipline against obvious instance of unfairness—when Jimmy steals Janey's doll—but also referee more subtle injustices.
Women busy juggling car pools, kids, and more often than not, jobs, may have tuned out the recent uproar in Wisconsin, when a dozen of the state's elected representatives absconded to avoid doing their jobs, and protestors stormed the state capitol to prevent legislation changing the rules for government-worker unions. Yet as these mothers learn more about how government-sector unions operate, they should recognize and recoil from the unfairness of what was business-as-usual in Wisconsin, and remains business-as-usual in too much of the country.
Unions are known for advancing fairness by providing a counter-balance to big employers. They band workers together to ensure that companies consider worker safety and pay fair wages. In the private sector, this dynamic makes sense: Employers have an interest in company profits and that means paying as little as they can while attracting workers with the necessary skill set. Individual workers have little influence, but all employees joined together have leverage to push for reasonable compensation. That's how coal miners and steel workers, for example, won needed protections.
This dynamic generally works in the private sector in part because unions know there is a limit to how much they can get from employers. Unions who succeed in extorting gold-plate compensation packages will have a short-lived victory: Companies saddled with exorbitant worker costs won't be competitive and will ultimately go out of business, leaving union workers jobless. This has happened in the auto industry, as U.S. automakers over-paying union workers struggle to compete. Fewer jobs have been created in this sector as a result.
Unions representing government workers operate very differently. When they negotiate, their employers (politicians and fellow government workers) don't have an incentive to keep costs down. Their interest is staying in power.
Ideally, politicians are supposed to act in the public interest, prevent wasteful spending, provide the most efficient public services, and keep taxes low. Yet that's often not the case. Too many politicians know the cost of overpaying union workers is spread among many taxpayers who are unlikely to notice the additional burden. Most taxpayers don’t pay attention when politicians give government workers another ten percent pay hike or increase pension benefits (particular since that bill that will be passed on to future taxpayers). But the unions certainly notice and are very, very grateful to politicians generous with taxpayer money.
And generous they are. When the additional benefits are taken into account, the average public employee in Wisconsin makes about ten percent more than a similar private sector worker. Policymakers have been so generous that, across the country, public employee pension funds are underfunded by a staggering $3 trillion. For years, politicians have been promising more and more generous benefits and not worrying about how the next generation of taxpayers will cover those costs.
Any good Mom could tell you that this process is inherently unfair: It's Johnny and Janey making a deal to divide up Jimmy's Halloween candy, while Jimmy isn't even in the room.
But it gets worse. These politicians also agree to collect dues for the government worker unions, knowing that doing so increases union power, and that those unions will give a portion of those dues back to support those politicians’ re-election campaigns. So it's not only the taxpayers who are left out of the equation, but even rank-and-file workers whose dues are forcibly taken and passed on to politicians who they may not even support.
Union bosses spend a lot of money (again, collected by the politicians that they help elected) to convince the public that they are representing the little guy. But when it comes to government-worker unions, that's a myth. These unions are the politically powerful, and they collude with the elected officials to fleece the true little guy: the taxpayers who have to pay the bill.
Wisconsin is starting to correct this inherently unfair relationship. The rest of the country should follow its lead.