When Democratic governor Dannell P. Malloy told state workers to accept $1.6 billion in cuts and big changes in the pension plan, they balked. They did more; they formally rejected the contract.
Fine, said the governor; I don’t have any money. If you won’t cut costs, I’ll cut staff — and the state began sending out thousands of layoff notices. Stunned unionists rushed back for a revote; this time they accepted the contract and the cutbacks.
Smart decision all around and good for the much put upon Connecticut taxpayers. It’s unlikely to be the last time Connecticut state workers face cutbacks and layoffs. But at some point, it’s likely that public workers in Connecticut will start asking themselves the kinds of questions private sector workers have been asking for years. “If the union can’t really get me a raise or a better pension, why am I paying them dues?”
Organized labor likes to blame its catastrophic, annihilating decline (from 35 percent of the total labor force at the peak in the 1952 to 11.9 percent now) on evil union busting bosses who won’t let workers organize. No doubt plenty of companies play hardball (as do unions) and that has its effects. Nevertheless, the biggest problem unions face is the public perception that they don’t add much value. If the union makes life too tough on the company, the factory goes to China — or the company shuts down, or a non-union competitor gets the bid.
What, then, is the point of paying dues?
Beyond that, labor unions are pretty much committed to the lifetime employment model. These days, workers change careers and change companies — and social mobility comes more from changing your career than from getting a raise where you work. What unions are good at is what fewer and fewer workers (and especially young workers) need.
The new era of austerity is going to be teaching that same lesson to state workers (36.2 percent of public sector workers belong to unions). Civil service workers are going to lose job protection, see health care benefits erode and get less advantageous pension plans — with, as usual, the unions sacrificing the interests of the young to the old. More workers will job hop in order to advance rather than slowly climb up the lifetime seniority ladder. Unions won’t be able to deliver higher wages because there isn’t any money.
Labor’s enemy isn’t Scott Walker. It isn’t John Kasich. It isn’t red state philosophy. It is arithmetic, and the failure of organized labor to figure out a way to add value. These are problems that stacking the membership of the NLRB can’t solve.