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Three things to know about unions

The recently resolved seven-day Chicago teacher strike has been the occasion for an-hoc conversation about public sector unions.

While far too many of the voices have been shrill, badly informed and devoutly partisan, any discussion about collective bargaining is an opportunity to educate the public. With the recognition on my part that nothing undermines a rational argument quicker than the author’s hubris, I offer three observations.

First, it’s important to note that contrary to conventional beliefs, most public sector pension plans preceded the growth of public employee unionism. The case of underfunded or overfunded plans is mostly a product of the larger economy and the value of equities in which the bulk of pension funds are invested.

Collective bargaining is a convenient scapegoat for politicians, hostile employers, and self-proclaimed fiscal watch dogs, but the process is not the problem. In truth, public sector unions did not underfund the state pension plans or fail to make payments into Chicago’s city retirement accounts.

What union workers did do was to enter into a contractual relationship with their employers and defer a portion of their wage increases into very modest post-employment plans. Blaming statewide, municipal or teacher unions for irresponsible fiscal management is like condemning the victim of a robbery for having accumulated too much wealth.

Illinois is in fiscal distress and Chicago teacher pensions are due a sizeable payment but public employee unions are not responsible for budgetary outcomes. In fact, in the past year members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and CTU have had contractual pay raises denied them by their employers.

Second, union members are politically active. Studies have demonstrated that union workers vote at higher rates than non-union workers. Why that is, is no mystery: union workers are exposed to issues, pubic policy choices and candidate voting records. Clayton Sinyai, author of a book on the American labor movement, rightly calls unions “schools of democracy.”

Union supporters and ardent union-hater recognize the political knife-edge that collective bargaining teeters on. Nearly 900 thousand workers in Illinois belong to unions and 52.6 percent of public employees are union members, but that large expression of political will could be severely restrained or suffocated by a governor’s signature. Let’s not be disingenuous; Illinois Senate Bill 7 was meant to hamper Chicago teachers bargaining power, not improve public schools.

Third, government and educational workers who are in unions choose freely to be union members. In Illinois there are only two ways a worker can become a union member: 1) vote yes in a monitored election, or 2) vote yes by signing a “majority interest petition.” When and only when a majority of other government employees also vote yes in either format, a union is formed or officially “certified.”

Despite dishonest ad hominem accusations about union coercion, the evidence is nonexistent. Take those “majority interest petitions” or MIPs previously noted. In a 2009 study conducted with professors from five other universities, I set out to determine whether there was any proof to claims that public employees were pressured into joining unions.

Between 2003 and 2009, 21,197 Illinois public employees were certified as union members through 1,086 petition campaigns. Any one of those workers who believed they were, in any way, pressured by a union organizer to sign their names to a petition could file a complaint with the appropriate state regulatory board. The board was then empowered, upon indication that “coercion” was applied, to dismiss the petition and order that an election be held. Additionally, employers could also file complaints on behalf of employees. So how many incidences of union “misconduct complaints” were confirmed? One.

I am under no illusion that a few facts will temper wild claims of union abuse when there is profit to be made from a lie. But while public sector unions and their leaders are as flawed as hedge funds and their managers, policy institutes and their directors, newspapers and their editors, and even universities and their professors, they are decidedly not the caricatures of an ideologue’s mind.

Robert Bruno is director of labor education programs and professor of labor and employment relations at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.



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