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Monday, September 10, 2012

Collective Bargaining is awesome...except when its not.

First let me say that I've never been part of a union, so this piece is written from the perspective of someone who has never experienced the benefits of collective bargaining but certainly understands its necessity in the public sector.

Second, the good and bad of unions is on display in Chicago this week.  In case you missed it, the teachers union which represents the teachers of Chicago's public school system, authorized a strike yesterday after the union could not reach a contract agreement with the city.  The good: there is no way each teacher would be able to command a guaranteed salary increase of 4% each year for the next four years bargaining individually.  The city would simply let go of the disgruntled employee (Illinois is after all an at-will employment state) and hire someone else looking for work as a teacher (or lets be frank: anyone looking for work).  However there's no way the city could let go of 30,000 people who were unhappy about their salary.  Trust me when I tell you that this is a good thing.  (Cut to any and every County employee not a member of a union nodding).

The bad: unions help shelter unproductive or under-performing members generally.  Part of the bargain is the process by which employee-members are evaluated and the process by which their employment is terminated.  There's usually an agreement by which the terminated employee-member leaves with at least a gold-lined parachute.  Maybe it just has gold strings, but the chute itself is still nylon.  The point is, a union employee fired by his/her employer usually leaves with more than your normal at-will employee without a contract, and that union employee is much harder to fire.  Because the point of the union is to protect its members and to extract the most benefit for its members, some employees get away with all sorts of what would under normal circumstances be fireable offenses simply because they pay union dues.

Unions raised the standard of living and the standards the employers had to meet in order to employ us; now employers ship jobs where the standard of living is less than ours and the workplace standards are even lower.  The existence of unions in a "free-market" society is actually amazing since they are generally counter to a free-market.  In a free-market, every employee is paid based on their skill and productivity; with a union those employees are paid based on how long they've held the job, which could really just be a function of how hard it is to fire them despite their lack of productivity or skill.

This dichotomy is on full display for the world to see here in our great city.  The teacher's are striking certainly because they deserve greater pay.  They are charged with the task of educating and planting the seeds of this country's future.  But they're also striking because the new system suggested to evaluate their performance would mean cutting 30% of them, meaning 9,000 of Chicago's 30,000 teachers are failing our children.  That's 9,000 teachers who want pay increases but shouldn't get one.  Its no wonder that by many measures Chicago's public school systems is thought to be one of the nations worst.  Yes the city needs to provide its teachers with the resources they need to do their jobs, in addition to rewarding them for their hard work.  But the teachers need to call out its under-performing members and help the city trim some fat.  Our children deserve better.  Our city deserves better.  Our future and survival as a nation requires better.

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