One challenge that faces all societies is the maintenance of social stability. In general, stability is desirable (although not at any price). To use an obvious metaphor, society is like a ship. If it becomes to unstable, it capsizes and this will tend to be
One aspect to maintaining social stability is ensuring that people are willing (or forced) to remain within the limits of the stability of the system in question. Naturally, there are important moral questions about the methods that should be used to maintain stability and about whether or not specific systems should be maintained. However, I will focus on a limited aspect of this topic. To be specific, I will address the current attacks on public employee unions, such as state unions and teacher unions.
Aided by the Tea Party and the corporations using the Tea Party organizations as fronts, some Republicans were elected as governors and then began to promptly start attacking public employee unions. While Wisconsin has been getting the headlines, Florida has also seen a sustained attack on public employees (with educators being a prime target). Obviously enough, these attacks are not aimed at balancing the budget or reducing taxes. After all, the folks in Wisconsin agreed to accepts cuts in order to offset the deficit created by the governor when he cut taxes for corporations. Rather, these attacks seem aimed at breaking up unions that have traditionally supported Democrats and also at breaking the ability of educators and state employees to resist the ideological agendas of those behind these “Tea Party” governors.
Unions have, of course, been demonized as part of the attack. The problems in education have been laid at the feet of the lazy, incompetent and overpaid educators as well as the union that is supposed to be devoted to protecting the worst teachers and presumably also to destroying education. Other public employees have also been cast as incompetent parasites who have grown fat upon tax dollars stolen from the people. These unions are also accused of having too much political clout and influence. It has also been claimed that allowing unions to participate in the political process means that unions might end up in negotiations with the very people they helped elect, thus giving them undue influence.
While unions do have their problems and these need to be addressed, the broad attack on public employees and unions does not seem to be justified. If they were justified, then these attacks could be seen as contributing to social stability by addressing undermining factors.
First, the idea that the unions are somehow the cause of states’ financial woes seems to be untrue. After all, the real cause of the woes seems to the economic crisis which was caused by corporations who just happen to be the darlings of the “Tea Party” governors. Second, the claim that state employees are overpaid relative to private sector workers is deceptive. While it is true that public employees make, on average, more than the average worker this is because most public employees have college degrees. When the salaries are adjusted in terms of education, public employees are underpaid relative to comparable private sector workers. So, bringing the public sector on par with the private sector would actually require raises for the public sector workers.
Second, the idea that teachers unions are the death of education seems to be mistaken. While unions do follow practices (such as protecting incompetent teachers) that are harmful to education, it is the practices rather than the unions that cause the problems. After all, Finland’s top-notch education system is unionized. However, I do agree that many of the practices in education do need to be reformed. However, this does not require destroying the unions or demonizing teachers.
Third, the charge that unions create a conflict of interest is worth considering. However, a conflict of interest would seem to exist for any group that donates to a political campaign. For example, the Koch Brothers helped bankroll Scot Walker and in return received various favors. Also, corporations donate vastly more money than unions. As such, if this money flow is a threat, then corporations are the far greater threat. The flow of campaign cash that buys influence is a serious problem, whether that cash flows in relatively small amounts from the unions or in oceans of cash from the corporations. A reasonable case can be made, I think, that the almost unrestricted power of money is creating significant harms in the American political system. Naturally, the corporations want to exterminate their competition (the unions) even though they already outmatch them with their contributions.
Fourth, while people (including state employees) like to joke about the laziness and incompetence of state workers, the reality is that they are no worse than any other workers. Just as in the private sector, there are good and bad workers. There seems to be no reason to believe that public employees are grossly incompetent across the board and should thus be replaced by the allegedly far more virtuous private sector workers.
Fifth, while there are no doubt public positions that are unnecessary, most jobs do seem to actually be important and useful. In any case, the “bloat” of public employees is probably comparable to the bloat that occurs in any organization. Naturally, useless positions should be trimmed but it should not simply be assumed that most positions are useless.
In light of the above arguments, it would seem that public employees and the unions are not a threat to social stability.
However, those attacking them seem to present such a threat. While the power of unions has decline severely over the years, they do still present one of the few sources of organized resistance available to public employees. Naturally, those who wish to be rid of the unions claim that they are not needed to protect public employees. After all, no one wants to do anything bad to them…and if they did, the public employees would surely deserve it.
However, this is clearly not the case. After all, the “Tea Party” governors have engaged in a full scale attack against public employees (especially educators) and seem intent on cutting wages, benefits, job security, jobs and so on. In short, there is a clear and present danger against public employees.
While public employees have been cast as greedy and useless parasites, it is important to remember that these are the people who perform such “useless” tasks as putting out fires, protecting citizens from crime, teaching the children, and so on. In short, they are an essential part of society. They are also fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors. That is, they are part of the community.
Destroying the unions and savaging public employees will not solve the economic woes created by the corporations. It will not fully offset the lost revenues from giving corporations tax breaks. Rather, doing these things will mainly damage key aspects of society and create instability.