Behind the Right-Wing Attacks on Collective Bargaining

Despite opposition within its own GOP ranks, and several national polls showing that the public supports collective bargaining, Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio, and a growing number of other states around the country are determined to strip the rights of public employees under the guise of balancing state budgets.

“We’re staying focused on reducing the cost of government and making Ohio competitive, and the first place to start is with our own budgets,” said Ohio Sen. Shannon Jones, the Republican sponsor of SB5, which eliminates public employee collective bargaining.

But trying to blame public employee salaries and pensions for budget shortfalls is a red herring. Republican-controlled legislatures around the country, from New Hampshire to Arizona to Florida, are attacking collective bargaining by scapegoating public employees for budget problems.

The Real Cause of State Budget Deficits

“You can tell it’s not collective bargaining that is causing these deficits because some of the worst state budget problems are in the small handful of states that prohibit public sector collective bargaining, states like Texas and North Carolina,” says Joseph Slater, a University of Toledo law professor, labor historian, and author of Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law and the State.

As to the real causes, Slater points to the economic good times, when many states passed tax cuts, often for those in the upper income brackets, on the theory that it would lead to economic growth and not hurt state revenues. It didn’t work out as they’d hoped, and after the big economic collapse of 2008, states experienced huge budget shortfalls as unemployment decreased revenues, and investments lost money.

The Real Cause of Pension Underfunding

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of states don’t allow unions to bargain over public pension benefits,” says Slater. It’s also telling that states with some of the worst pension problems have virtually no public unions.

So what did happen to public pensions?

The economic downturn, combined with the stock market crash of 2008, hit pension fund portfolios hard—reducing the value of some funds by 30 percent or more. A few years ago, many public pension plans were in the black, but after 2008, everyone took major losses, including corporate pension plans, which lost $900 billion of their equity holdings.

Also, when the stock market was producing double digit returns and housing prices were soaring, state governments made optimistic assumptions to figure out how much money to put into the pension plans – they made assumptions about how much state residents and pension plans would earn in the booming stock market, how much property values would increase, and how tax revenues would grow. Those rosy assumptions led some politicians to put less money into pensions and divert the funds to their pet projects.

Eliminating Collective Bargaining Does Not Save Money

When states try to reduce public salaries and pensions by eliminating collective bargaining, they take an economic hit in the long term. The lower the wages of public employees, the less discretionary income they have to spend in the local economy. The higher the wages, the higher the reinvestment into the economy. And research shows that most public employees stay – and spend – within the state after retirement.

Also, more and more studies are showing that public sector workers generally don’t make more money than private sector workers when you compare similar workers with similar jobs.

So then the debate shifts to questions of efficiency, says Slater.

“If you take away collective bargaining, you take away worker voice and give management unilateral authority, and there’s no evidence that’s efficient,” he says. “There’s also no evidence that public agencies that bar collective bargaining produce a better product.”

Collective bargaining allows teachers and other public employees a voice with which to share ideas about how to best do their jobs. Slater says that research shows that workers having a real voice can improve communication and increase trust and stability in the work force — qualities states need when facing difficult times.

Revoking Collective Bargaining Doesn’t Solve Problems, It Creates Them

Before states formally authorized collective bargaining, Slater says public-sector unions and employers met and came to informal agreements. Bargaining helped produce efficiencies and fairness because workers had input.

“In fact, there were many more strikes by public workers in Ohio before the bargaining law was passed than after,” Slater says. “This is because the law provides effective ways to resolve differences short of strikes. In this light, it’s not surprising that the demonstrations in Wisconsin aren’t over money, they are over taking away voice.”

Eliminating collective bargaining also shrinks the talent pool. Better employees are attracted by more rights and better conditions.

“Proposals in which workers would get less money and have fewer rights make jobs less attractive,” Slater says. “That’s something Republicans claim to understand about executive compensation but don’t seem to understand about teachers, police officers, or firefighters.”

Privatization Is More Expensive Than Collective Bargaining

The same political forces who are trying to weaken unions are also pushing for privatization. But privatization has a long history of problems, from political corruption in choosing contractors, to eliminating responsiveness to the public being served, to increasing fees for services.

“It sounds like a magic bullet – get some private company to do this instead,” says Slater. “But it can wind up costing the public more money than just doing the job in house.”

It’s all about politics and putting a new face on old-fashioned union busting. Collective bargaining is not the cause of problems in public-sector budgets.

“True fiscal leadership,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, “requires creative solutions grounded in the most important needs of the community. So faced with crippling budget deficits, fiscally responsible governors should focus on reforms that create jobs and a long-term agenda for moving their states forward.”

  • Eugene Humbert

    I respect people’s right for collective bargaining – in the PRIVATE sector. Public employees have NO competition, therefore they hold the voters hostage to their demands. In my humble opinion (and it’s just that – mine)public sector workers should have no “bargaining rights”. The United States Government got by for centuries without it. They have Civil Service in the past, and what passes for the same function now. Individual States governors and legislators should never have the power to write contracts binding their voters to pay scales and benefits that are beyond generous. It not only hurts the general public, it encourages poor performance by protecting lazy and incompetent workers.

  • scott k

    You are missing the point; Teachers, nurses, firemen, etc didn’t cause the problem – the disgustingly rich of Wall Street and Bush’s illegal wars did. Teachers are easy to blame because Joe the Plumber types find it easy to understand Fox sound bites and the phrase “no more taxes”. I have worked in the schools for twenty years and have known very few “bad” teachers who should have been let go but due to their “brown nosing” skills have remained in the schools. I don’t for a minute believe it is any different in other professions. The ignorance of the general public as to what it is really like to teach needs to be addressed. We do not get paid vacations, we have not had pay raises (my district anyways) for the past 8 years, we don’t get paid during the summer, etc, etc. School boards are your voice, and they tend to be ignorant as well. We NEVER see our school board members in our schools, yet they are allowed to make policy and curriculum decisions based on what they THINK is best for kids. Just because a person went to school doesn’t mean they are an expert. I love House M.D. but don’t plan on doing surgery any time soon.

  • Ryan Y

    Collective Bargaining means that we are paid based off the average performance. If you are a poor teacher you are overpaid. If you are an average teacher you are paid just right. If you are a great teacher you are underpaid. Eventaully what happens is after the initial idealic younger years of teaching, performance slides downwords. In a way, collective bargaining allows you to get paid more by working less and since humans tend to take the path of least resistence, in this case, they get paid more.

    As a teacher who values his level of work and performance, I’m am angered by the fact I am paid less than those teachers who either perform poorly, or maybe perform the same, but because they have been at it longer than I, they get paid more.

    End collective bargaining and watch performances and effort soar.

  • Karenjay

    Collective bargaining, in short, creates a public monopoly. This is done to protect teachers against low wages and small benefits. But a better solution would be to allow for vouchers (which the NEA opposes.) Vouchers would get the parents reinvolved in their children as students (as opposed to right now where they are asked to pay taxes, listen, and help the schools, but don’t have any choices or real voice.) Every time I ask a teacher why they would not support vouchers, they fall back on “there are bad parents out there who don’t care” and “we know what is best for students,” and “all the good students will leave public schools.” These excuses to me are anti-family, anti-taxpayer, and anti-freedom. I still don’t understand why any professional would choose to be lumped in with every other professional and have no ability to improve their salary. Can you think of any other educated professional who is paid based on years experience alone? What about a doctor, lawyer, accountant? Vouchers would allow teachers to compete for better salaries without having to resort to slamming parents and taxpayers.

  • Robert

    “Eliminating collective bargaining also shrinks the talent pool. Better employees are attracted by more rights and better conditions.”

    True, but at the same time this is also what is protecting the sub-par employee from losing their job, thereby not allowing an employer to hire a more proficient and useful employee.

    I think the idea of collective bargain holds value for both parties, but only if i is done fairly.

    Don we need to vanish collective bargaining? Maybe not. But the way its done needs to be reformed.

  • Luis

    Aren’t you guys at the nea supposed to be promoting good education instead of bias politics. This just shows that you guys don’t give a crap about your students like you claim, but care more about your political agendas. You guys should be ashamed.

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  • The legislatures have used collective bargaining as a tool to punish teachers for the recession the GOP created…..why are teachers the wipping posts of this society? Perhaps Arnie Duncan, Bill Gates,and others who continually bash teachers should put their money where their mouths are and go into the classroom. Then we could se what their scores are….Teaching is no longer a noble profession but a job. It’s not a career I would recommend anyone going into. The way contract law has been subverted by the greedy ole people, if I was a teacher I would sign a contract, wait until mid-year, and reight safter lunch I would quit….go home. I would not even tell anyone. This is what it is coming to. The legislatures who attack teachers better bewars. What goes around, comes around.

  • Ken Burton

    Balancing our fiscal budget at most every level of government (school districts, city, county, state, and federal) appears to fall mainly on those without financial political muscle. With regard to government workers, this translates into the low to middle level employees who’ve been losing their jobs, taking pay cuts and furlough days while upper level management, appointees, and elected officials do plenty of fast talking but little else. Yes, some upper level government workers have reduced their office budget, but most likely not their personal income. Others have taken short term income cuts, but when we’re not looking its back to the blotted paycheck and benefits.

    In the same way the top 400 wage earners control the conversations so we don’t focus on the fact that they control 80% of the profit in this country, upper end government workers don’t want taxpayers focusing on their salaries and benefits so they attack those without financial political muscle. We need to change the focus for several reasons. The middle class can’t always be fighting from a defensive posture, and upper level politicians need to open their personal pocketbooks matching their ideology.

    It’s interesting that higher level government employees are attempting to balance the budget by going after union government workers who typically make $40,000 to $50,000 per year, but personally won’t share our financial pain. How can upper level government workers be representing us if they don’t share our financial pain? Why aren’t they personally sharing in balancing the budget? If they believe that strongly in their ideology, why aren’t they putting their personal pocketbook where their month is? Why isn’t the media addressing this issue? Is the revolving door policy so strong in this country that taxpayers can’t even control the pay of the upper level government workers who are likely looking for cushy non-government jobs once they’ve promoted rules and regulations favoring corporations over middle class workers?

    It’s time to go after the hypocrisy of the upper level government officials. It does not appear the mass media has the stomach to address this issue. Maybe a true grassroots movement backed by voters rather than bucks will force our politicians to stop ignoring the middle class.

    Ken Burton
    Chino, Ca.


    Unfortunately there is a strong push to take from those who’ve contributed to the system for many years, while no mention is made of those who’ve lived off the system without contributing to it. Instead of taking a teacher’s 20K a year pension, perhaps the first conversation should be eliminating the 14K a year welfare check for the person who prefers not to work.

    It’s unacceptable for states to promise benefits, without the intent of honoring those commitments. It’s paramount to look elsewhere before further pinching the educators of this country.

  • Jeff

    ell, aside from the logical errors of the piece, one of which was in trying to create a straw man argument by saying that

    “You can tell it’s not collective bargaining that is causing these deficits because some of the worst state budget problems are in the small handful of states that prohibit public sector collective bargaining, states like Texas and North Carolina”

    …when the fact is that you can’t tell. Different states have different reasons for deficits. Just because NC isn’t having budget difficulties because of CBA’s doesn’t mean that other states that do have CBA’s wont have difficulties due to the bargaining agreements.

    As it now stands, CBA’s reward mediocre and poor teachers while giving good teachers no incentive to improve. Capitalism is based on the idea of competition and financial incentive (necessity is the mother of invention, anyone?) CBA’s do away with that – those that actually do their jobs are supporting all those that don’t. We need something better, something that helps maintain a fair wage and also creates incentives to achieve and yes, even have teachers compete with each other.

    An an aside, I have noticed that every post that doesn’t toe the leftist dogma gets a thumbs down 🙂

  • How can the governor of Wisconsin destroy unions of teachers and workers? Isn’it unconstitutional? Is it not against the freedom of speech and association? Is it not possible to appeal the governor decision with the Supreme Court because his ruling is unlawful and contrary to all American laws?

  • Thomas Paine

    The logic is simple. Lower taxes (and less regulation) mean more profits for corporations and their executives. Corporations provide the campaign mega-funding that plasters the names of “cooperative” candidates on TV and everywhere else. Ignorant voters (that’s us folks!) vote for the names they recognize from the commercials since most voters have done no research. The purchased officials then pass laws that, no surprise, lower taxes and relax regulations. Eliminating teachers lowers budget costs and only the citizens who send their children to public schools suffer the consequences. Wealthy politicians and corporate executives send their children to private schools, so what’s the problem?
    Next, to perpetuate their longevity, the corporate pawns eliminate any political challenges from union-funded candidates by, hello Wisconsin, banning collective bargaining and neutering public employees unions, thus depriving unions of the dues they need to counter the incumbents. Just to nail the coffin tighter, make it a felony to promote a strike or sick-out. Overcrowded public schools then become nothing more than institutional daycare centers since it’s impossible to teach a class of 45 students including the learning disabled anything more than the absolute minimum to pass EOG tests, if that. But with no salary increases and rapid benefit erosion, why would any teacher even care? Imagine earning your Masters Degree in Education and getting paid the same as the janitor!
    Long term, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer… and the middle class evaporates. Eliminate any hope of health care for the new unfortunates and maybe you can kill them off faster than they can reproduce, which is prodigious. Sell them cigarettes, sugary drinks and Big Macs to hasten their collective demise – there’s your “trickle-down” from tax cuts for the wealthy. As the gulf between rich and poor widens, we witness revolutions such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Thomas Jefferson said that democracy depends on periodic revolutions to keep it on track. But, it’s already too late. Democracy was officially declared dead in the U.S. after the Supreme Court allowed unlimited corporate political contributions to their favored candidates in 2010.
    There is one last hope before the need to take arms eventually arrives (Republicans may regret supporting the NRA) and that is RECALL. We, the people, still have the numbers. Start petitions, as in Wisconsin, to recall public officials who are on corporate payrolls. Don’t vote for anyone whose support and intentions are unknown to you. Another long-lasting solution is TERM LIMITS. Corporations and the wealthy do not want to have to re-purchase candidates every few years. Vote for candidates who support term limits even though it means they will have to earn a living after office. Last, but not least, read my essay on Common Sense, the catalyst for the first American Revolution.

  • Jayme

    As a public servant, an RN, who works crazy hours, weekends, holidays, summers, I have very little sympathy for my fellow union public servants. I resent being asked to contribute to a pension package, insurance and other benefits not realized by many, many other middle class workers. Yes, you are my neighbor, my friend, my child’s teacher. I respect the field you have CHOSEN. I am your friend, your neighbor, your loved one’s nurse. I am there for you in times of need and at all hours of the day or night, in all seasons. Please respect me, the position I have CHOSEN, and allow me to contribute to my own pension, my children’s education, and spend my money as I wish. I will not retire at 55 as I AM THE CONTRIBUTOR TO MY OWN RETIRMENT SAVINGS. As more is expected by more people when less is actually earned or “taken home” due to an ever increasing tax burden by many, please understand, open your minds,
    do not “hate you” or “disrespect you.” We disagree. Simple as that.

  • Arthur Rabin

    You sound like a wonderful and independent person who has her financial act together but, unfortunately, most of your peers don’t. Imagine a single mother teacher who is struggling to make ends meet. She isn’t likely to be saving for retirement or even has any idea how to purchase health insurance. She will at least have something minimal to fall back on. My state offers a defined benefit plan as well as a 401K where we can invest in any Wall Street hustle that we choose. It appalls me how many insurance companies and other leeches feed on school teachers. Please don’t throw these dedicated but financially unsophisticated state employees to the wolves because it suits your personal and unique situation.