The political battles raging in states across America are cast as about whether big labor retains its considerable clout.
Republican Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey say public employees are fleecing taxpayers, causing fiscal chaos. It's an inherent conflict, critics contend, for public-employees' unions to bargain with government officials they helped elect with campaign support.
In a column in Newsweek, a former adviser to President George W. Bush charged that the primary purpose of public unions is to "work against" the interests of taxpayers. "Public unions are big money," the article boldly proclaims. Most of the specifics are directed at unions representing teachers, firefighters and nurses, yet the broadsides attack labor generally.
The reality is that the labor movement has steadily lost influence, politically, socially and economically. Labor believes President Obama is taking it too much for granted; he is.
Most of the work force isn't unionized, and labor negotiations are less important than in the past. "There's no sector, other than professional sports, where unions actually have a big impact on cost structure and productivity," said Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union.
Over the past 30 years, the number of private-sector unionized employees has dropped from more than 20 percent of the work force to 7 percent today. The number of unionized public employees has remained at about 35 percent.
Yet the impact of teachers and police unions are exaggerated. Labor costs, including wages and benefits, are actually a smaller share of state and local spending — about 52 percent today, down from 63 percent 30 years ago, according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The power of collective bargaining, critics charge, is a cause of the states' fiscal situation. Yet some states such as Texas, which prohibits collective bargaining for public employees, have a far greater budget shortfall than Wisconsin. Most experts agree the real cause of the budgetary crisis on the state, local and national levels is the 2008 financial crisis.
Regardless, some Republican governors insist public-employee wages and benefits have to be brought in line with the private sector. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report in December found the average state-local government worker earns more than $40.10 an hour in salary and benefits, or almost 50 percent more than the $27.88 an hour earned by the average private worker.
Upon closer examination, that's misleading, as government workers tend to be better educated; 60 percent of Wisconsin public employees have college degrees, and a report last year by the bipartisan Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that when factoring in education levels, state and local workers earned 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private workers. That was true in Wisconsin, too.
Still, with huge budget shortfalls primarily caused by the economic crisis, there's no dispute that teachers, nurses and cops have to make sacrifices. They complain, however, that governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ohio, by taking any higher taxes off the table, aren't spreading the sacrifice. New Jersey's Christie vetoed a small tax increase for millionaires; the average teacher in his state makes $65,000 a year.
Teachers' unions are the focus of the debate. Often they're their own worst enemies, not because of high salaries — usually teachers aren't paid enough — or lavish pensions, but because of rigid work rules that protect inept teachers and stifle innovation. New York City is still trying to phase out its "rubber rooms," where teachers accused of incompetence or misconduct receive full pay for months as they sit in a room awaiting adjudication.
Yet if America's school problem was simply attributable to unions, the education expert Diane Ravitch wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, why is it that Finland, with a widely praised education system, has heavily unionized teachers?
U.S. labor mistakenly has put all its political eggs into the Democratic basket, making it easier and more natural for Republicans to attack them.
Not long ago, some unions, including the Teamsters and building trades, principally supported Republicans; even the largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, backed about as many Republicans as Democrats. Republicans such as Sen. Clifford Case of New Jersey and even President Nixon received important labor backing.
Yet last year, more than 90 percent of union political contributions and support went to Democrats. Of course, today's Republicans, the Christies, the Walkers, probably prefer making a weakened union movement a target.