Giving and Taking Unions

After slipping into another certainly fruitless discussion with a certain of our regular commenters, it occurred to me that one of humanity’s detrimental tendencies, with particular implications for modern society, is to think of societal mechanisms with too narrow of a focus, usually adjusted to the breadth at which our preferences appear clearest.
The case in point: I would argue that the appropriate concept of workers’ unions is as, themselves, a reaction to the market (using “market” in its broad, theoretical sense, of course). Workers needed a mechanism through which to assert their rights and needs, and in many respects, the unionization method worked out well. However, if we begin to see unions as the source of, rather than the means for, improvements, we create another institution that must constantly be justifying its existence. We also maintain a centralized power even in the absence of a centralized goal toward which to wield it, thereby giving those at its head unhealthy room to lead toward their own ends.
The question is not what good unions may or may not have done in the past. It isn’t even what they boast of wrenching from employers (often taxpayers) now. The question that we must consider is whether unions currently help us to strike the appropriate balances between employers and workers and between freedom and regulation. Keeping them in their conceptually appropriate place, if we diminish the influence of unions — or even disband them altogether — now and need their services again someday, we can always reestablish them, no doubt in a more effective form for having scuttled entrenched interests.

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Bob Washburn
Bob Washburn
14 years ago

Why are Rhode Islanders so uniquely focused on trade unions? I moved her from Massachusetts in 2005. While Mass has its trade and public employee unions, their news media aren’t as obsessed with the topic as seems to be the case here in RI. Most employees in both RI and MA are not union members, so why the fuss here?
Bob Washburn
Porstmouth

Michael Morse
14 years ago

Perhaps I’m a little touchy when it comes to this subjuct, but I must say, the clever language used by folks with apparent contempt for labor unions is getting a bit tiresome. I’ve been a union member for sixteen years. Never have I boasted of “wrenching” anything from anybody. Not only have I never boasted of it, I’ve never considered wrenching anything from anybody. My union leaders are honest, respectable people surviving in a difficult arena, and fighting for every cent and benefit their membership earns.
All of the progress made by labor unions is in jeapordy as global competition cancels our competitive edge. The products we covet and can now afford may improve the convenience factor here at home, but the people slaving to put these products on the shelves of our giant retailers live in squalor and work for peanuts. The enviornmental progress made and in large part instituted with union pressure is moot if our global neighbors have no standards to adhere to.
Disband unions now and the working people, incidentally the majority of Americans may never get a foothold again, and will watch from the sidelines as their quality of life “competes” with the rest of the world.

klaus
klaus
14 years ago

Gosh, wonder who that regular commentator was? Bet he had something really good to say. To answer Bob W, I suspect it’s because union jobs are about the only jobs in RI that are seeing salaries increase. Hence, they become “the bad guy” for a lot of people. This is especially true for the public unions, since private ones are a negligible factor around here (however, I will take correction on this as I don’t have hard data). The core of the problem is that RI runs more like a city than a state due to the size. And we know how corrupt cities can get. Remember Kevin White? (I don’t but I’ve heard tell). Conservatives use unions as a scapegoat and a diversion for the problems created by Reaganomics. Since most people’s wages have stagnated, and those of union members haven’t, it’s easy to point to the unions as bloodsuckers. It’s not an entirely inappropriate description. However, rather than focus venom at the unions, we should direct our energies to getting rid of the tax breaks that have made income so unequal. We’ve already hit the level of inequality of the 1920s, and there’s no end in sight. That pinko Ben Bernanke pointed out that the percent of after-tax income controlled by the top 1% has grown from 8% in 1979 (before Ronnie) to 14% in 2004. In the meantime, the percent going to the bottom 10% has fallen from 7% in ’79 to 5% in ’04. See, the money that unions used to get from employers is now going straight to two things: executive comp, and capital spending *outside the US*. The current BusinessWeek will tell you all about it. In fact, it’s the first story. So, hope that helps. And I might suggest to certain people that… Read more »

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Well, this is interesting. Writes Bob: Most employees in both RI and MA are not union members, so why the fuss here? Writes Michael: Disband unions now and the working people, incidentally the majority of Americans may never get a foothold again, and will watch from the sidelines as their quality of life “competes” with the rest of the world. My entire point was that unions, by their nature and their purpose, work on behalf of their members, not “the majority of Americans.” If that work ends up resulting in a net loss for society, perhaps it is time to shift our methods away from unions. As Klaus writes (although I disagree with both his assumptions and conclusions): Since most people’s wages have stagnated, and those of union members haven’t, it’s easy to point to the unions as bloodsuckers. Emphasizing analysis of public sector unions: Except inasmuch as they are a means of siphoning money away from taxpayers, toward union members, toward unions, toward politicians for union goals, I don’t see why American unions must be part of the equation when it comes to such things as improving the environment and improving the circumstances of foreign workers. If these are in our society’s interests (which they are), we’ll find a way to implement changes. Rhode Island — which it is ludicrous to position as some sort of testing ground for supply-side economics — provides a stark example, as the negotiated employee component of public services (especially in education) eats away at necessarily dwindling budgets and winds up decreasing the opportunities and quality of life of non-union citizens. Michael, I realize that union membership has improved your life, and I truly am sorry that fiscal realities are increasing the antipathy to that boon, but the current trends are not sustainable, and… Read more »

Susan
Susan
14 years ago

Klaus,
You might want to take a look at the chapter on the globalization of labor from the April 2007 IMF World Economic Outlook (http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2007/01/pdf/c5.pdf). It starts with the fact that across multiple countries, wages’ share of GDP has fallen in recent years. Then it analyzes what caused this. Globalization is part of the story, but not the most important one. That belongs to accelerating technological change, which has eliminated many well paying middle management jobs (which lend themselves to automation more than jobs at either end of the skill spectrum), as well as facilitating outsourcing and providing skilled workers with access to the global market. In short, Klaus, while I’m sure your rhetoric sounds brilliant after a few beers, in the sober light of day it suffers for a lack of factual support and logical arguments for your politically correct and ideologically pure assertions…

Pat
Pat
14 years ago

I must confess I read this three times and have no idea what you are talking about. But, I challenge the premises that defending the members puts them in opposition to the public– quite the opposite, I think it enhances the public.
Maybe you should join a Union, Justin, or help make sure the President signs the Employee Free Choice Act, and make it easier for other to join so that your arguement has a different conclusion. Because the way I see it, you conclusion isn’t an exclusive position from the argument and in fact doesn’t follow. Without additional factors employed, you may at best have a sufficent condition to your argument, not a necessary one.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

“Employee Free Choice Act”
Is that the lovely act that takes away the secret ballot and allows union bosses to use intimidation and peer pressure to get things done?

Rhody
Rhody
14 years ago

Gee, the weather has sucked the past two or three weeks, hasn’t it? Of course it’s the unions’ fault.
Hey, as long as the non-unionized working man attacks the unionized working man instead of keeping his focus farther up the food chain, the ruling powers will continue to get away with anything they bloody well please.

Michael Morse
14 years ago

Justin says:
Michael, I realize that union membership has improved your life,
Justin,
Perhaps you should refrain from making assumptions about other people’s lives, it cheapens your otherwise compelling opinions. I was doing quite well in the private sector when I became a firefighter and joined local 799. I am certain my financial situation would be better if I had stayed. I took the job as a firefighter for reasons other than financial and am richer for it, though not in the way you insinuate.
Justin also says:
“fighting for every cent and benefit” for their members
When you quote things, at least use the entire phrase, “fighting for every cent and benifit their membership earns” The key word here is “earns.”
You have a good way with words. Twisting them for emotional whallop is a cheap trick and painfully obvious.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

Hey Mike. How did the Cranston Firefighters ‘earn’ a 9/11 holiday?

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Mike,
I in no way intended any ploys for “emotional whallop.” The only way “earn” is not a subjective term in this context — indeed, the matter in dispute — is if your employer is not paying you for hours worked, in which case, you don’t need a union, you need a lawyer. So for brevity’s sake, I took words that you used and left the rest — subjective whether stated or implied — in the knowledge that readers must pass your comment to reach mine.
As for my assumption about your life, I can well understand how being a firefighter would be more fulfilling than many other jobs. After all, I’m happy as a carpenter. But being a firefighter and being in a union are not the same thing, and I can only imagine that you would not be so faithful to your union if you didn’t think it was improving your working circumstances, and therefore your life. Really, are you saying that being in the union has not improved your life?
I hope none of this comes across as sarcastic wordplay. I’m truly at a loss as to what I said that isn’t accurate, given the above explanations.

Michael Morse
14 years ago

Justin,
There are no privately employed firefighters. Some rural areas have volunteers but that is not feasable in bigger cities. Without firefighter unions, our employors, essentially winners of popularity contests masquerading as Mayors and City Councilpersons would pay their firefighters minimum wage and hand out rubber boots and buckets. (so much for my dislike of sarcastic wordplay, sorry about that, I’ve been up for thirty hours and get a little punchy) Firefighter unions level the playing field and do indeed improve my present working enviornment. I find them a necessary evil. In a perfect world our leaders would be men of princible who paid a man his worth. History has shown us otherwise. My point was, and is, my life prior to firefighting was much more lucrative, and a lot less stressful. I have no idea how successful I would have been in private enterprize, but I’m certain my income and benefits would far surpass what I’m making now.
As for “earning” I think it is clear what I meant.
Incidentally, the picture of those footprints in the snow nearly broke my heart. I’ve got an eleven year old Malamute and a ten year old Husky.

klaus
klaus
14 years ago

Susan: are you famliar with Ben Bernanke? In his speech to the SF Fed on 2.6.07, he stated that growing wage inequality is not due to what he calls “skill-bias.” If that were true, then the wages of college grads would not have become stagnant the way wages for non-college grads have stagnated.
So, sorry. Can’t use the “education” canard.

Susan
Susan
14 years ago

Klaus,
You are obviously in over your head on this one. I’m quite sure Chairman Bernanke, and most of the staff economists at the BOG and FRBNY, not to mention a lot of other places, found the chapter I cited in the IMF WEO an excellent summary of a difficult and challenging issue. Too bad twits like you are more preoccupied with ideological purity than engaging in the content of issues. On the other hand, you serve as a great example of why RI is in the shape it’s in…

Susan
Susan
14 years ago

Mike,
Am I correct to assume that, when confronted with data that shows RI spends way more per capita than any other state on fire protection (and, see Station Fire, gets less for it), you, like Frank Montanaro, believe it is proof positive that the other 49 states aren’t as good or as smart as RI?
Basically, the same logic that the Poverty Institute uses, right? You know, the people whose lobbying has created a situation in which the General Assembly is about to cut your benefits to keep Right Care, Righ Start, and Right-Up-Yours, Unions fully funded?
Have you ever stepped back and objectively looked at the situation facing RI’s public sector unions and the benefits you were hoping to receive in retirement but now probably won’t get? You seem like a smart guy, so I am interested (honestly) in what you have to say.

Michael Morse
14 years ago

It is difficult to reply to your question at this time, I’ve been working thirty hours now with eight to go. A two alarm fire is raging in Olneyville, I’m sure I’ll be sent there shortly. I needed to get back to my station to clean up after a particularly difficult call, a thirty-six year old lady suffered a major head bleed, her family was distraught as we carried her out of their home, perhaps forever and into my rescue. Vomit, blood from IV’s and sweat have splashed my skin and uniform, one that some see as a symbol of greedy special interest unions. This was my last shirt. I changed last nights uniform after it was soaked with fluid after delivering a beautiful baby boy to a greatly appreciative couple. The shooting I responded to on the way back from Woman and Infants thankfully wasn’t too messy. When confronted with data showing RI spending more per capita on fire protection I think of the editorial in this Sunday’s Providence Journal stating the unfairness of taxes in Connecticut. The problem, the article says is that it is unfair to tax those who live in areas with a higher cost of living the same as those living in less affluent areas. Those folks making over one hundred thousand a year are hardly wealthy when considering the cost associated with their lifestyle. I don’t heve the article here and now to quote from but I plan to ressurect it from the trash and use the words of the editorial writer the next time somebody compares the costs of fighting fires and saving lives in Rhode Island to “the rest of the country.” Perhaps you should step back and look at the situation facing public sector unions. Think of it as your livelihood,… Read more »

Michael Morse
14 years ago

I just got back from the fire, read my comments and realized I should have done a better job answering Susan’s questions instead of ranting. Susan, if you are still interested, check back after I’ve had a chance to unwind and think about things.

Daivd Davis
Daivd Davis
14 years ago

Rescue 1 responds to over five thousand calls a year. 416 per month 13 per day 1 call every 2 hours Of course how many of those calls are for someone calling because they have a sore throat or a drunk that called for a ride? On Tuesday of this week you ran 11 of those runs in the first 6 hours transporting 4 drunks, a sore throat and some minor aches and pains. You had this to say about it. “This is what our 911 system has become. It is a disgrace. I’ll be here another fifteen hours. I’ll let you know if I respond to any emergencies. Don’t count on it.” Sounds to me like you are actually just a ride that is cheaper than a taxi. Talk about slanting statistics for your own personal gain and effect. For someone who is so busy they have to stay awake for 30 hours straight you sure do find alot of time to be online blogging. Is that part of the difficult job or is it mandated by contract? And before you even think that I know not of what I speak, I have 4 members of my family that are fire fighters,one of which has volunteered for three tours of duty in Iraq. (see I can be dramatic also) scattered throughout the country and they all cannot believe how great the pay and benifits are for the firefighters in Rhode Island. Regardless of how you spin your little world, the reality is that you have great benifits and good pay. Also, I am not sure what your shift calander looks like, somewhere along the lines of the typical 24 on 48 off or some permutation there of I am sure. So, I am sure many of the firefighters in… Read more »

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

Why do the union firefighters in Cranston feel that they are entitled to getting 9/11 as a holiday, Mike?

Michael Morse
14 years ago

Susan,
I find it difficult to swallow the fact that a society as successful as ours balks at paying firefighters wages comperable to electricians, plumbers, carpenters, or similar proffessions. Because we are public employess does not diminish our worth. Public safety is probably the single most important function of government. Our government has grown to include RItecare, Ritestart, Riteupyours and countless other programs, all well meaning I’m sure, but unsustainable. In any household budget you have the things you can’t do without, heat, electricity, food. When it is time to trim the budget you don’t go after the heart of the operation, you trim the fat.
My once honored proffession has become villified by public perception steered toward that end by a relentless demonization of public employee unions. I guess it is human nature to think that others are faring better than ourselves. I am guilty of that as I envision you and other contributers to this forum wealthy self rightous people trying to add to their wealth on the backs of middle class workers. I’m probably wrong but I can’t shake the image, though I do try.
I really didn’t get involved with this forum to defend unions. I did, however put my two cents in and am willing to stand by my convictions.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

I have no problem paying firefighters well while they work for us. But unless you were injured in the line of duty I don’t owe you squat once you’re not a firefighter anymore. Pensions?! Screw you. I barely get a 401(k) that I can’t afford to invest the max into because I have to pay taxes to pay 80% salaries to guys who haven’t done anything to deserve it for 20 years.
And you wonder why you’re vilified. It’s because you’re a leech that believes he’s entitled to royal treatment because he puts his arse on the line. I spent four years putting it on the line every day in the military and when I got out I was entitled to nothing but the GI Bill and crappy medical care.

Andrew
Editor
14 years ago

David,
1. In some of his own writings, Michael has made the point that people abusing emergency services is a problem.
For an example most of us non-emergency workers can probably relate to, imagine having a Dilbert-like boss who four times everyday day and says “drop whatever you’re doing and come to the conference room immediately. We have an emergency”. Three out of those four times, the “emergency” turns out to be something trivial, but one out of every four times it’s real. Keep in mind…
A. The real stress of working in that environment is going to increase, even though the real number of emergencies hasn’t, and
B. It’s not the employees fault the boss (or, in the emergency services case, the public) is an idiot.
2. Criticizing someone for taking the time to express himself here is unfair. I know you’re not saying that people in certain jobs have no right to participate in the civic debate on issues, right?
Greg,
1. Expecting Michael to explain the actions of a firefighting unit that he is not a part of is like expecting an average Republican citizen to be able to explain the statements of Alberto Gonzales.
Michael,
What concerns me is that what you’re saying and what someone like Frank is saying can both be true – we are paying a lot for fire protection and your department is undermanned. The connection could be that you’re undermanned because the city can’t afford to add new firefighters under existing terms.
That said, I’m not yet ready to take on faith that the rest of the city of Providence is spending money as efficiently as is possible and that the fire department is “the” problem.

Andrew
Editor
14 years ago

Greg,
The pension system is a fiscal problem.
Defined benefit plans are difficult to fully fund when population is not steadily growing. Our population is not steadily growing anymore. And this lies at the heart of the reasonable quarrel with the unions; they don’t want to change the way they do business from what they did 40 years ago, even though huges changes in society make the old way impossible.
Or to revise and extend Mark Steyn, it’s not necessarily the “gold-plating” that’s the problem, it’s the demography, stupid.
But don’t you think dumping this all on one Anchor Rising commenter is a bit over the top?

Daivd Davis
Daivd Davis
14 years ago

Andrew:
1.I agree that the abuses on the system are out of control. It stems from the entire social service system being out of control. The system has become the enabler / pusher that has allowed so many to give up responsibility for self and push it onto the rest of us to shoulder the burden. Is it right for this to be the case “NO” but it is equally wrong for Mike to suggest that he is a position that requires him to be going 38 hours straight with no break, which leads to the next point.
I was not criticizing Mike for taking the time to post in this forum. I was criticizing him for stating “It is difficult to reply to your question at this time, I’ve been working thirty hours now with eight to go.” To state that one is working so hard and then be able to post to this blog, his own blog (link from his name) and probably several others in disingenuous. I work a great deal of hours as well, if I have work to get done I do it, if I have down time and I am tired I sleep, If I have some free time and am not tired I do a variety of things but I don’t say that I am working while I do those other things.
There is nothing better than the debate that takes place in this type of forum, it has begun to replace the mainstream media which has not spoken for the majority in a long time.
It has given a voice to so many that the few on Smith Hill have taken away by not fulfilling their contractual obligation to the majority taxpayer.

michael morse
14 years ago

Thank you Andrew for mediating here, but I threw myself to the lions, so to speak and have no one to blame but myself.
Daivd,
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I am surprised that all you got out of it were ways to attack my position. Blogging has become a fantastic stress releiver. Would you prefer I punch out between calls? Maybe some piecework at the station would keep you happy. You sound like a very bitter man.
Greg,
What are you talking about? Your information is completely wrong. Overtime is paid for overtime worked, nothing more. 80% pensions? I pay 9 1/2 % into our pension fund and am entitled to 50% after twenty years, to a maximum of 75% after 32. It is a better than average pension designed to attract better than average people to the fire service in lieu of average pay. You get what you pay for. Get your facts strait before you comment. We put our “arse” on the line for twenty years buddy, and would never disrespect members of the armed services. What is the matter with you?
I think the reason you guys managed to get under my skin (congradulations, no easy task) is because I expected more from the commentators on this blog.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

Wow, I was off by a whole 5%? I should be shot.
Better than average as long as they’re white males, right?
And what’s the matter with me? I’m going broke paying gold standard prices for an ‘average’ firefighting force. The nation doesn’t look to you as an example of great firefighting so why are we overpaying for your services?
Nobody forced you into firefighting and you get paid quite handsomely and then gets a sweet pension so don’t act like we owe you anything.

oz
oz
14 years ago

FYI, here is what a first-year firefighter in Cranston makes per year:
$50,071 salary
fully paid health coverage with $5 or $10 prescription copay
$900 tuition reimbursement
$785 uniform maintenance allowance
$600 civilian clothing allowance
12 vacation days
17 paid holidays
It only gets better as time goes on with longevity pay, time off for union duties, and overtime.

David Davis
David Davis
14 years ago

Mike:
Clearly you are overworked and very tired. Take a Kelly day on me. All I was trying to point out is that you spent quite a bit of time telling us how tired, overworked and stressed you were. I can appreciate how blogging can be a way to relieve stress but sitting bleary eyed at a computer screen in no way should replace sleep. If things are that bad or if you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen.
Trust me I got more from your blog than just ways to attack you. Reading it made me feel like I was sitting at the table with my brother and brother-in-law as they competed telling stories of their escapades as Paramedics trying to see who could get my sister to get up from the table in disgust.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be paid as much as we think we are worth, have pensions (some people don’t get any), great health coverage…..
But the reality is we cannot afford it. I could not agree with you more about the social programs in this state being unsustainable but in reality all of government and publicly financed entities are unsustainable at present. The reality is that more and more people are going to leave the state and revenues are going to all but dry up. At that point there will be not pension system left. There has to be a certain amount of fiscal pain for everyone now so there is a future.

Michael Morse
14 years ago

What’s a Kelly Day? I honestly don’t recall complaining about how tired, overworked or stressed I am. I have the greatest job in the world and know it. I am truly appreciative to the people of Providence for providing for me and my family. I simply have stated, perhaps in overly dramatic prose, that they are getting what they are paying for.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

First year salary in Cranston? $50,071.
First year salary in New York City? $32,700
“I simply have stated, perhaps in overly dramatic prose, that they are getting what they are paying for.”
The extra 20 some thousand the Cranston guys get over an NYC firefighter buys us what, exactly? You can’t see how absurd that is? It’s nothing short of sanctioned theft allowed and tolerated and ignored because the union in entrenched in every facet of government like a cancer.

Rocco
Rocco
14 years ago

Michael Morse,
What a bunch of absolute garbage spewing from your mouth. WHy have you been up so long – working your full time job? All you firefighters have other jobs. THen you cry about how hard you work. You shouldn’t be allowed to have second jobs since you have presumptive disability. You firefighters are the biggest scam artist around. Who the hell do you think you are kidding?

Justin Katz
14 years ago

Rocco,
Firefighters provide a critical service. Their job descriptions and compensation ought to be a topic for public discussion in each community, concerning its needs and resources, but your tack can only create irresolvable hostilities.
It’s presumptuous, besides, considering how clearly this thread has highlighted the different arrangements in each town.

Michael
14 years ago

Rocco,
I don’t have a second job, I worked an overtime shift between my regular shifts. I never cried about how hard I work. Your preconceived notions are polluting your ability the discuss this topic rationally. Piss poor comment, you should be ashamed.
Nice save, Justin. I had decided that this forum wasn’t worth the trouble. My conservative beleifs have nothing in common with the diatribe I’ve endured while participating here. The blog could be an excellent means of communication and understanding between us. Instead, it has been corrupted by keyboard bullys with nothing constructive to add to any intelligent converversation and gives them a voice that in the “real” world would result in fisticuffs.

David Davis
David Davis
14 years ago

8/24/04 Cranston City Council meeting “Don’t you ever talk to a wife of one of my guys like that again!” Valletta shouted at Mayor Laffey. “I will knock you right out!”
4/23/07 Anchorrising.com “Instead, it has been corrupted by keyboard bullys with nothing constructive to add to any intelligent converversation and gives them a voice that in the “real” world would result in fisticuffs”
I guess all firefighters in the State of Rhode Island go to the same conflict resolution classes.
I always thought this blog supported free speech. I did not realize the servers have been moved to communist Russia or China.

Rocco
Rocco
14 years ago

Justin & Michael,
Nice try, but I’m not buying into this theory that firefighters should be put on a pedestal. My litmus test for the value I get goes something like this: Let’s advertise for firefighters at half the wages and benefits and see who applies. We all know the answer – you’d have thousands willing to do the job for far less. So knock off your sanctimonious whining about what heros you are. If you’re not up to the job, get another one.
We are overpaying in a huge way for the services you provide.

Michael
14 years ago

I can’t believe that this thread has denigrated to this. I just reread the whole thing to see what all the fuss is about. Aside from a few well thought and provocative comments the whole thing is a waste of time. It is no wonder we lost congress. Keep it up and the White House is next. If this is the “conservative voice” in RI I want no part of it. Enjoy your little circle jerk, I’m taking my dogs for a walk.

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