Unions and government employees

Capitol Landscape8X10
Beautiful at night, but not the time to pass divisive legislation.

Signing Act 10 and curtailing union representation of teachers and most government workers made Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker a Republican hero. His actions also made the state a model for wrong-headed personnel management.

In Republican eyes, unions were the cause of the state’s projected $170 million 2011 deficit as well as students’ poor educational performance. Sitting back and thinking this through, one might logically wonder why all workers aren’t unionized if they manage to get budget busting pay for incompetent work? Instead, union membership in the United States is plummeting. Unions represented about 35% the U.S. workforce in 1955 and 27% in 1979.  At the end of 2011, 12% of the workforce was unionized.

Walker’s cluelessness about two of  his Milwaukee County Executive staff members  illegally working for months on his and Cullen Davis’s campaigns on county time hint that personnel management is not his strong suit. However, he could learn much studying private sector employee management.

Unionized organizations have something in common. They are not good places to work. Well-run organizations that respect their employees and treat and pay them well (or better) don’t deal with unions. Eliminating the union doesn’t eliminate the bad work environment; it only terminates efforts to improve.

Unions are declining in the private sector for good reason. Many of the worst unionized jobs in the U.S. during the late 1970s are gone. Some of the biggest environmental disasters pulled up shop and moved their factories to Third World countries. Robotics replaced other mind numbing jobs.  These are changes worth celebrating.

Another reason lost on Walker for union decline is the widespread adaptation of Peter Drucker’s management principles. The main focus of Drucker’s work is moving from an adversarial management/worker relationship to one focusing on teamwork that removes the delineations between employees and management. Drucker proposed slashing 80% of upper and mid level managers and empowering decision-making to frontline employees. In essence, the workers are the managers. Empowered, fairly compensated workers that are treated with respect and enjoy their work don’t need to have their unions abolished. They’ll do it themselves.

This is why Walker, despite all his bellicose pronouncements to the contrary, will never be a true conservative. Walker could have adopted a truly conservative approach to state workers and teachers by implementing Drucker’s principles, remaking state government and eliminating 80% of school and college administrators. Public employee unions would eventually die a natural death. Instead, Act 10 showed Walkers liberal colors with a heavy-handed big government enforced law. Worse yet, Act 10 was forced down the throats of local governments and school boards. True conservatives don’t force laws on lower levels of government. 

While Republicans attempt to place a good share of the blame for Wisconsin’s financial and educational problems on unions, top business schools and management consultants look at these issues differently.  They teach that if employees formed a union, management failed. If employees have a particularly belligerent union, management really screwed up. Companies dealing with strong unions are symptomatic of bigger issues.

Public sector unions

While only 6.9% of private sector employees are union members, 37% of public sector employees are unionized. Government may not be the twenty-first century reincarnation of Henry Ford, but clearly there are problems. If we assume an organization with a particularly confrontational union suffers from bad management, the opportunity to improve is immense.

Unfortunately, Walker ignored the chance. In he and his fellow Republicans’ logic, simply getting rid of unions ends demands for higher wages, smaller classes and on and on.

Unions support Democrats. Eliminate unions and we sly Republicans will rule forever! (Unfortunately, 2012 didn’t work out quite as planned.)

There are costs to this approach. For underpaid and under appreciated good teachers, unions were the only tools bringing them any semblance of job market parity. Combined with cutbacks in state funding to schools, their futures include no pay raises, larger classes and a less maintained workplace. The most capable and marketable teachers will get jobs somewhere else. The least valuable will stay where they are. The brightest and best college students planning careers in education will logically change their majors to different fields, leaving teaching (and public employment) to a less talented tier.

In the business world, Walker’s actions would start a downward spiral for his company and a proactive board of directors would show him the door. Unfortunately for Wisconsin residents, government enjoys a monopoly for most of its services. We’ll simply get used to mediocre and unmotivated government employees.

Making public employees happy requires commitment. For starters, we need a leader with vision who recognizes government can’t be all things to all people. Rather than expanding the power of the state and picking winners and losers in the marketplace, as Walker’s Economic Development Corporation is doing, we need a true conservative who can identify government’s core functions and has the courage to eliminate whole sectors of bureaucracy. Combine that with implementing a Drucker style streamlining of government administration and we are left with an empowered group of doers with a purpose. Pay them what it takes to attract the best and the brightest and you’ll never have to deal with white-collar public employee unions.

Applying conservative solutions to education means cleaning out the administration building and implementing an unbiased, statistically correct method of measuring student improvement combined with a pay scale that rewards excellence. This is using a “carrot” based approach to improvement. Walker’s Act 10 solution allows school boards and administrators more latitude in firing teachers. Unfortunately, this “stick” approach to management is doomed to result in retention mistakes, more delineations between teachers and administrators and low morale.

True conservatives recognize unions aren’t the problem; they are a Band-Aid solution to incompetent management. If Walker were a true conservative, he would have foregone the theatrics of his Act 10 solution, rolled up his sleeves and started the hard work of solving the real problems that enabled public employee unions to flourish.

www.frugalron.com 2013

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