What If They Called A Strike and Nobody Noticed?

Members of the state’s largest government workers union have been threatening to strike although a tentative deal may now dissuade them. The 87000 state employees represented by the Service Employees International Union include janitors accountants prison cooks and those who work for the Department of Motor Vehicles. They have gone without a raise for three years and want to be "shown the money."

Private sector workers can sympathize. Some of them too have gone without raises for years and everyone would like more money to pay their gasoline bills.

However there is a big difference between the circumstances of those who toil in private industry and government workers.

In the private sector compensation is closely tied to productivity and a business’s success in the marketplace. A worker who is helping a company make a profit is in a good position to negotiate a raise. The employer has an incentive to make the employee happy. No raise and a worker is free to take his profit making potential elsewhere. Here we see in action the advantages of a willing seller of labor coming to an agreement with a willing buyer of those services.

On the other hand a business that is struggling to compete is not likely to be offering much in the way of additional compensation even to deserving workers. In fact the firm may be asking workers to take cuts in pay or benefits in return for the expectation of a continuing job. General Motors for years one of the rock ribs of the American economy provides a good example of a situation where employees may be willing to accept cuts in order to keep working.

This brings us to the public sector. Because state workers have no competition and it is difficult to measure their productivity it is more difficult to assess their value. Despite this difficulty however the broken record demands of union leaders are predictably redundant: more more more.

Unfortunately for taxpayers they usually get more. And the reason has nothing to do with productivity or intrinsic worth.

The sad truth is the most important element in negotiating pay and benefits for government workers is their union’s ability to elect the officials who will be sitting on the "other side" of the table. Usually these officials can be counted on to show much more concern for super-sizing the pay and pensions of public employees than for the taxpayers who will struggle to meet these long-term obligations. Yes elected officials are ostensibly on the other side of the bargaining table but we all know that there is a lot of footsie going on.

So how is this dilemma resolved? What if government workers like prison cooks had competition? If McDonalds and Denny’s and any of 50 other restaurant chains and food-service providers were allowed to compete for the contract to prepare food for prisoners the likely outcome would be that the service would be cheaper and the prisoners would be happier. If a private sector firm can’t do it for less then
prison cooks would have an excellent argument for a raise.

As for the DMV many Californians are of the opinion that this agency’s employees have been on strike for years. Can there be any doubt that a private sector firm could do a much better job of providing prompt and courteous service?

Is there any chance of breaking the stranglehold that public unions have over state services? Not likely given the current makeup of the Legislature where three-fifths of the members are beholden to the government worker unions for their offices.

However if members of the SEIU do go out on strike they should be wary. The public may come to see them as less essential than they see themselves. And increasing media coverage on excessive pay perks and pensions for public employees erodes any remaining sympathy even more.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.