"Do or Do not. There is no try."

The Two Labor Fallacies: Public or Private, It’s Work

As New Jersey throws its weight behind Wisconsin and Ohio in rolling back the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees, we are once again going to hear the  argument that public sector unions ought not to be confused with their private sector counterparts. They’re two different animals entirely.

Private sector workers, so the argument goes, have historically organized to win better working conditions and a bigger piece of the pie from profit-making entities like railroads and coal mines. But public sector employees work for “us,” the ultimate nonprofit, and therefore are not entitled to the same protections.

This is a fond notion at best. Yes, public school teachers were never gunned down by Pinkerton guards; municipal firefighters were never housed in company-owned shanties by the side of the tracks. But none of this cancels their rights as organized workers. No ancestor of mine voted to ratify the Constitution, either, but I have the same claim on the Bill of Rights as any Daughter of the American Revolution. Collective bargaining is an inheritance and we are all named in the will.

The two-labors fallacy rests on an even shakier proposition: that profits exist only where there is an accountant to tally them. This is economics reduced to the code of a shoplifter — whatever the security guard doesn’t see the store won’t miss. If my wife and I have young children but are still able to enjoy the double-income advantages of a childless couple, isn’t that partly because our children are being watched at school? If I needn’t invest some of my household’s savings in elaborate surveillance systems, isn’t that partly because I have a patrol car circling the block? The so-called “public sector” is a profit-making entity; it profits me.

Denying this profitability has an obvious appeal to conservatives. It allows a union-busting agenda to hide behind nice distinctions. “We’re not anti-union, we’re just against certain kinds of unions.” But the denial isn’t exclusive to conservatives; in fact, it informs the delusional innocence of many liberals. I mean the idea that exploitation is the exclusive province of oil tycoons and other wicked types. If you own a yoga center or direct an M.F.A. program, you can’t possibly be implicated in the more scandalous aspects of capitalism — just as you can’t possibly be to blame for racism if you’ve never grown cotton or owned a slave.

The fact is that our entire economic system rests on the principle of paying someone less than his or her labor is worth. The principle applies in the public sector no less than the private. The purpose of most labor unions has never been to eliminate the profit margin (the tragedy of the American labor movement) but rather to keep it within reasonable bounds.

But what about those school superintendents and police chiefs with their fabulous pensions, with salaries and benefits far beyond the average worker’s dreams?

Tell me about it. This past school year, I worked as a public high school teacher in northeastern Vermont. At 58 years of age, with a master’s degree and 16 years of teaching experience, I earned less than $50,000. By the standards of the Ohio school superintendent or the Wisconsin police chief, my pension can only be described as pitiful, though the dairy farmer who lives down the road from me would be happy to have it.

He should have it, at the least, and he could. If fiscal conservatives truly want to “bring salaries into line” they should commit to a model similar to the one proposed by George Orwell 70 years ago, with the nation’s highest income exceeding the lowest by no more than a factor of 10. They should establish that model in the public sector and enforce it with equal rigor and truly progressive taxation in the private.

Right now C.E.O.’s of multinational corporations earn salaries as much as a thousand times those of their lowest-paid employees. In such a context complaining about “lavish” public sector salaries is like shushing the foul language of children playing near the set of a snuff film. Whom are we kidding? More to the point, who’s getting snuffed?


By: Garret Keizer, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times Opinion Pages, June 24, 2011

June 26, 2011 - Posted by | Businesses, Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Conservatives, Constitution, Corporations, Democracy, Economy, Employment Descrimination, GOP, Government, Governors, Ideology, Labor, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, State Legislatures, States, Teachers, Union Busting, Unions, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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