GovHelp: Do Worker Unions Help or Hurt Government?

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This topic contains 24 replies, has 20 voices, and was last updated by  Pam Broviak 6 years, 8 months ago.

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  • #123569

    Governors in states stretching from New York to Florida to Tennessee are trying to get creative in balancing their budgets — some say on the backs of workers — as they propose that government employees pay more out of their own pockets for pensions and health care.

    Of course, Wisconsin is the most prominent story right now, but other states are sure to see nasty fights between government executives and unionized labor. Here’s a GREAT article for more background on Wisconsin and beyond:

    And unions aren’t only powerful in states – Federal and local unions allow huge blocks of workers to organize and advocate for legislative or management initiatives that limit workers rights and benefits. In fact, I just spoke at AFGE a couple weeks ago and learned that they were in favor of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruling that ultimately ended the Federal Career Internship Program (FCIP). I was a huge fan and was very sad to see it go.

    It’s not an easy issue and I’m torn…so persuade me:

    Do unions help or hurt government?

    Is there any middle ground for executives and unions in austere budget periods?

  • #123617

    Pam Broviak

    All the unions I have watched organize in local government were created because employees no longer wanted to be subject to the whims or lack of leadership of elected officials. A union prevents newly elected officials from getting rid of everyone so they can re-staff with people they choose. And it prevents elected officials from playing around with the income of employees because they don’t want to pass the cost of doing business along to citizens who benefit from the services.

    But I have seen examples of this that were both a benefit and a detriment to government. It’s a benefit when it prevents professional, hard-working people who have a lot of knowledge about the agency from being fired for no good reason. In these cases everyone who worked and knew how to manage the agency is let go and replaced by people who usually have no background in government. Unfortunately citizens do not view this as a problem because there is a strange and fundamentally incorrect public perception that it is so easy to run a government that anyone can do it. But basically it is a multi-million dollar operation upon which our whole community depends. Getting rid of everyone in an agency is like firing everyone from a hospital and hiring all new people who have no experience in the medical field. It creates chaos for about four years until some of the people start to figure it out – many never do. Which brings me to the negative effect of the union. It is always a bad thing when the union protects a poor performing employee who was only hired by a past elected official as a favor to one of their friends. This employee never tries to figure it out – they know they don’t have to. And other employees leave them alone because if they don’t, they risk getting in trouble from the elected official.

    As for the salaries, because government is a multi-million dollar operation upon which we all depend, we need professional people there who know what they are doing. (It always surprises me that the public seems to have so little concern in wanting to make sure educated, experienced, and professional people are hired/elected to oversee the management of their tax dollars and their community.) But to hire people like that, government has to pay at least close to what industry pays or they will not attract the people they need to run efficiently and effectively.

    The other side of this is that it costs money to run a government – our agencies are faced with the same costs of doing business as everyone else. So when costs go up, rates or taxes must go up or the government can’t pay bills. Unfortunately, it’s easier for elected officials to neglect to give cost of living raises or to fund pensions than to pass a rate or tax increase or cut their special projects/programs. So this brings us to the problem today – elected officials are trying to subsidize the cost of running government with employee salaries and pensions rather than cut their special projects or programs or raise taxes or rates. So employees organize to try to prevent this poor management decision. The only negative side I have seen with this is that some unions manage to negotiate wage increases or benefits that are not reasonable. And again, that is the fault of the people at the negotiating table – most of the time, the elected officials.

    The other solution I have seen elected officials propose to avoid this whole situation is out-sourcing, but in most cases, for daily operations, it is more costly to outsource than to have staff. What elected officials fail to consider is that in outsourcing, they are still paying wages, pensions, benefits, etc but now they are also paying a profit. For example in our state, for state-funded engineering contracts, the state and local government are paying cost plus almost a 3X multiplier. But this method is accepted by the public because they don’t see the wage cost – only a bill from a company. They don’t understand that with in-house staff they see all the actual costs while with a bill from a company they don’t see the wage and benefit costs and costs not normally paid by government for in-house work. Such as the cost to maintain a much nicer facility than government would have maintained, bonuses, marketing costs, etc.

    Anyway, the solution is probably sitting down in a reasonable manner in a workshop environment trying to target exactly what services are essential and need funding and then coming up with a reasonable salary/benefit structure. When the majority is reasonable, this works, but too often, I have seen when the majority, on both sides, is not willing to give up their own agenda for the good of the public.

  • #123615

    John Evans

    Well said, Pam. On the whole, worker unions are a tremendous benefit to government for all the reasons you cited. Any negatives, like alleged protection of poor performers, are isolated cases, in my experience. Overall, the benefits to the public far outweigh the negatives. You are correct in stating that the public has a distorted and inaccurate view of what it takes to run a government. As to the question of middle ground, I believe that open, above-board good-faith negotiation on the part of executives will go a mighty long way. Union members are well aware of the budget situation, and, if asked and sincerely listened to, will likely have useful suggestions on how to reduce spending on non-essentials. Bluster and bombast, and announcing a conclusion in the media before even beginning to bargain in good faith, as seen in Wisconsin, won’t work.

  • #123613

    Darryl Perkinson

    Excellent summary above and some very on target remarks. If I may add the government worker in most states and circumstances is the very easy answer to saving budget dollars on the surface. There should be some serious discussion about the impacts that such measures as furloughs, salary freezes and the like do to productivity. Employees who provided excellent service to the American public daily are now taking time to discuss and ponder their fates when it comes to household expenses and family budgets. The narrow focus of just freezing pay and potential furloughs are not being considered for the true final costs.

    A discussion must occur among all Americans about the value of our expectations. For the services each of us receive which ones that benefit you are you willing not to have tomorrow. This argument is bigger than the members of the union who are seeking fairness and transparency for their constituents. It is larger than condemning all government workers with the terminology of poor performance or wasteful spending. The reality is what is our personal expectation concerning what we want local, state and federal governments to do for us. I do not think the discussions ever get to that point. They always tend to gravitate to blame fixing and finger-pointing.

    It goes beyond just the unions it actually comes down to what are our expectations and what are we willing to pay for them.

  • #123611

    Denise Petet

    In my opinion, Unions in government aren’t too much different from unions in the private sector. They have their pros and cons…the pros being protecting workers from management decisions that can be seen as ‘harmful’ to the employees,(outright firings, wage cuts, etc) the cons, the perception of them holding work ‘hostage’ to unrealistic demands. (for example, in an area where the average salary is $20 dollars an hour, to have a union demand that all their members MUST be paid at least $30 an hour, even for unskilled labor…all that does is generate a resentful attitude towards the union and its members and the population as a whole. I know we have a union here that has had a habit of going on strike, often with the attitude of ‘what i’m paid isn’t enough to live on’….well what they’re getting paid for their assembly line work is more than I get paid with my college degree…so not much sympathy from me. I tend to feelt he same way that I felt about pro ball players whent they said ‘hey, my 175,000 base salary just isn’t enough’. You don’t want it, I’ll take it 🙂 )

    Union leaders need to be cognizant of their surroundings and just the message that they are sending to the public as a whole.

    I think there is the potential for a middle ground, but all sides need to be willing to look at the other side of the issue and attempt to understand them as well. If a state is in the need to make budget cuts, instead of outright digging their heels in and saying ‘heck no you won’t cut these peoples salary’, maybe the union needs to say ‘ok, don’t like it, but how can we work with you to accomplish your goal while not totally sticking it to the employees?’

    Government employees are often powerless. They don’t get raises unless the legislature passes a law. They don’t get any sort of bonuses unless the legislature passes a law. Some positions are protected by civil service protection, but others aren’t. Unions can give employees a voice, but the union does need to be careful about what it says and how it says it.

    As a state employee, some members of the public already hate me. I, in their eyes, sit on my butt all day. I take 4-5 breaks a day, i accomplish nothing, I am vastly overpaid for what i do. etc.

    Well a union can combat that. They can educate and, in a way, be a PR engine. This is what this office does. This is the skills it takes. This is what it’d cost to have the same thing outsourced. This is why these people are needed. They can represent people, not just in the ‘don’t you dare cut their salary’ attitude, but in a ‘this is why these people and jobs are needed’.

  • #123609

    Brian Gryth


    I glad to see this topic. I have been wondering a similar thought. I believe in unions and as John points out stereotypes of union worker are the exception to the role. I am a union member and most of our activities are targeted at securing a good working life for our members. In Colorado, we are looking at pay cuts, furloughs, reduction in state contributions to pensions, and changing the pension program to a defined contribution program. In all cases, state workers are illustrated as over paid and that are not suffering like their private industry bothers and sisters. One particular debate that bugs me is the pension debate. State and local worker are always portrayed as living the good life because they have a defined benefit pension program and no one in the private industry has such pension programs. The only problem is that private industry worker do have access to a define benefit program that a great number of state and local worker do not. It is call social security. In addition, most private industry worker lost their pension programs because of mismanagement of those programs by the companies that offered them.

    At the end of the day, government worker are the easy target of the budget debates. The problem is that most government workers are willing to sacrifice, but these workers also want to be included in the discussion. Of course, it is easier to not include the workers and to demonize the civil servant that work for the public good.

    As one of my managers once said about the union, you can either see the union as this external force or you can see it as people. If we remember that unions are made up of people, then we can talk about budget in a constructive manner. As a recently promoted state employee who may have to give up my union status, I will remember my union brothers and sister are people who just want to work for the people of the state of Colorado. At the end of the day, we are all colleague and we are all working to the benefit of the people we serve.

    So I would say that at the end of the day, unionized employees are a good thing when we stop stereotyping and start actually talking to each other as people.

    In solidarity,


  • #123607

    Cindy Lou Baker

    Sometimes unions need to be strong and other times they need to step back and see the bigger picture. They are tax payers too after all and the more they fight for benefits for the few, the more the rest of us, along with the few will have to pay. In Wisconsin, I think the day of the big state pension needs to be over. New employees have the most to lose but I’m certain there will be a new retirement program to replace the old. I do have to say that the federal unions I’m familiar with are simply there to save worthless employee’s jobs. Most honest employees that work hard and are able to get along with all types of managers don’t have any problems that require union help and most of them can usually defend themselves and don’t need to cry for the unions to save them.

  • #123605

    David Kuehn

    As a former officer in a local government employee association, I fel that we provided a great benefit not only for the employees but for the elected officials, their appointees and the people they represented by provided a knowledge, continuity, and focual point for discussing employment issues. While the city was not required to bargin collectively, they did. It took a lot of effort outside of my job to learn about the legal issues, job elements, histories, and stories of the many people who worked throughout the agency.

  • #123603

    This is a really important point: people not caricatures. It’s too easy for managers and media to portray a group of people with one broad brush stroke…which is why I’d like to see a marketing campaign that is essentially government employees saying what they do, then ending with “…and I’m your neighbor / brother / sister / friend.” We are all Americans doing the best we can to make our nation great.

  • #123601

    Steve Ressler

    I think a great middle exist with forward-thinking unions that embrace change and technology while focusing on the core mission of protecting good workers. I think the struggle exists when unions try to protect an old model – for example in one city the union was feverently against Blackberrys as they consider it time off the clock or trying to protect folks who don’t want to embrace a new way of working (whether technology or what have you)

  • #123599

    Andy Oram

    In Massachusetts, a particular form of the cost versus union rights
    issue is a plan to combine cities and towns in a large state-wide
    health care pool that would save substantial money. I can’t take the
    time here to cover the collective bargaining issues, but the plan is
    provoking strong opposition among the unions who are afraid their
    health benefits will be cut. A very progressive pro-union friend of
    mine in my town (Arlington) claims the trade-offs will come out pretty
    even, and that opposition by the unions is based on a
    misunderstanding, at least in Arlington.

    One aspect that interests me is that the teachers union would rather
    have a dozen member laid off than give way on the health-care pool. I
    suppose their reasoning is that lay-offs and hirings come in cycles,
    but that a substantive change in how benefits are allocated would be very
    hard to reverse any time in the future.

  • #123597


    I am pro-Union.

    The current top-down hierarchical model that in place is heavily weighted in favor of management, with problems ranging from gaps in the whistleblower protection laws, to outdated, obsolete or non-existent processes for making decisions on topics from budget cuts to employee ratings to disciplinary actions, etc etc.

    Without Unions, there would be no balance of power in Gov’t.

    They are not a luxury item in today’s government, they are a necessity.

  • #123595

    Patrick Stingley

    The unions help the government because they
    solve a lot of problems before they become

  • #123593


    Well, I have yet to see a union who was really representing anyone but themselves. They do get very good pay and benefits. Unions today are in the business of selling different products to their membership. Why? They can charge hefty fees to these companies for the names of their members. Plus, look at the dues the member pays today and where do they go? To support Union mangements direction. If unions think they can do it better why do they not buy these companies and try for themselves!! Most would go belly up very quickly. Why do companies go overseas or to the south…cost of production is so much cheaper. Yes Labor. Wisconsin,,, well I am all for the Scott Walker adn his ideas. He is right in that it is not just the Democrats but Republicans also allowed the union contracts to get out of hand. Where else can you retire when you are “52”. Thats right 52!! We are in a bind and where else can you go to cut. governmetn could raise taxes but that would just drive us into a deeper recession. When will our elected representatives represent us those who voted them into the office

  • #123591


    I am really amazed that no one can see the harm that the public sector unions are causing. WI Teachers are teaching the kids to lie by getting a fradulent “free pass” from a doctor instead of going back to work. Sanatation workers in NYC shut down the city just because they could last month in the middle of the snow storm. Collective barganing is not a right. Having a pension for life is not a right. Health care is not a right. Once, many years ago, I agree that unions were needed to fix bad working conditions, etc, but today, they are money hungry propaganda machines bankrupting states, counties and putting a huge burden on US competition. The thought process that public workers need to be protected and the union is there to be a security blanket is making the workforce more complacent over time. And this is why the public workforce always seems to get the bad rap. We need to rely on ourselves, teamwork, innovation, to motivate and mentor the young professionals. We need to teach our children to stand up for themselves, work hard and they will have success.

  • #123589

    Mark Hammer

    I work in the Canadian federal context, so my perspective may be necessarily different than your own.

    Federal workers (with the exception of managers) are largely represented by about 4-5 major unions, and a number of smaller ones representing specific job groups. You can find out more about that at the website of the National Joint Council, the national employer/bargaining-agent consultative body ( ).

    In our federal system, much as in yours and systems everywhere, there is wage compression, such that the folks in lower level jobs make more than they would in the private sector, and the folks closer to the top make less than they would in the private sector. (Though 2 weeks ago, I was joking to colleagues that Mubarak hadn’t really left, but was coming back as a consultant, because that’s where the real money is.”). Certainly one of the reasons why that is true is because blue collar and admin-support workers are generally un-represented (often by virtue of existing in small chunks) and short-changed in the private sector, while upper-level and management jobs are under-compensated because government has no means of generating revenue to pay higher salaries, and the public probably wouldn’t stand for it even if they could.

    Unions, much like firefighters, are entities that, when you need them, you really, really need them. In between those times when you need them, they like to keep their fire engine clean (It’s a clean machine). Were the employer not quite so combattative, things could be more productive.

    In past, I’ve had the pleasure to work closely with union reps when devising employee surveys and conducting analysis, and I have to say that there are a number of important issues that, if the unions weren’t on top of it, those areas would be summarily ignored by the employer.

    For example, just exactly who is tasked with monitoring the level of physical violence the nurses attending to vetereans face each and every day? If the union weren’t on top of it, nobody else would be. Recently, our border guards were asked to carry sidearms, and I think there was even talk of parks rangers being asked to carry sidearms. Unions stepped in and said “Whoa, camel! I said WHOOOOOAAAAAAA camel!!”. Indeed, when public servants get sh*t upon by public officials (and there is absolutely no indication that would not continue to occur, regardless of how many concessions they make), the only voice to stand up for them, as a body, IS the union. The employer may engage in forecasting labour needs, but often it is the unions who have a better sense of their membership, and can speak to the needs of the specific programs and services.

    To whit, the Quebec provincial government just passed back-to-work legislation yesterday (… ), to force provincial prosecutors back to work. The prosecutors, meanwhile, are quick to point out that unless the wages are made competitive with other provinces, their ranks will remain thin, and important tasks like investigation and prosecution of the assorted biker gangs and other organized crime groups that have plagued the province for decades, will ultimately crumble. Government looks at this and says “Well, we can’t afford that pay increase”. The union looks at it and says “Well you also can’t afford to throw less money at it and have that money amount to absolutely no public good, either. So decide what you want.”.

    And that, I think, is one of the reasons why unions need to be there for the good of the government. Legislators rarely have any insight about things on the shop floor. They think in terms of abstract policy matters, and responding in ways that garner public trust. Those things ARE important, but then so is what happens on the shop floor.

    Wisconsin’s move to restrict bargaining agents to largely wage negotiations presumes a level of prescience about the concrete details of what permits programs to provide full value for citizens that legislators and senior manager share precious little track record of showing themselves.

  • #123587

    Denise Petet

    Yeah, and I live in a state where any member of our legislature can serve one term and get fully vested in a retirement package that I have to work decades to earn.

    There’s always a disparity and always someone somewhere that’s gotten themselves a cushy deal, usually at the expense of others.

    I do not blindly support a union simply because I have seen the ‘pay us money and we’ll take care of you’ promises, with very little return. However, I am also not wholly against them because the old ‘work hard and earn your way’ is pretty dang impossible when those at the top rig the rules so they can keep their 80% of the profit and dribble the remaining 20% out to everyone else. The deck is often stacked in favor of those at the top who have their cushy living and are very willing to cheat and manipulate to keep it. Having someone to speak for you is often the only way to be heard.

    Unions are easy targets because they don’t have a lot of credibility. As a matter of fact, when I think of the word, I have a mental image of fat cats tossing the ‘power of the people’ around to negotiate cushy deals for their members, deals that I, as a consumer, will have to pay for. They’re why people that sweep the floor can make $30 an hour.

    One way to earn credibility is to have integrity and promote it and support it. If a union sees an employee being treated unfairly, they step in. But if they see a slacker trying to cook up an excuse to get out of rightfully earned punishment, the union steps back….their loyalty isn’t to themselves or their profit margin or the employees, it’s to integrity and supporting those that honestly have earned that support.

    They take care of the good and work with management to reward the good but they also step back and let the bad apples get what they got coming to them. They are not pro management or anti management, pro employee or anti employee, they arre pro integrity. They acknowledge the good, be they managers or employees and they shun the bad, no matter who they are.

  • #123585

    Roland Shield

    Do unions help or hurt government ?

    It would seem that to arrive at any reasonable answer to this question, one must first forward a commonly understood and clearly defined role of Government and unions in this country. This has yet to happen; thus, it is a rather vacuous question.

    Is there any middle ground for executives and unions in austere budget periods ?

    Remember is school when they said, “There are no dumb questions.” ? Well, they weren’t referring to this one, because it is indeed a very dumb question. Why ? Because it frames the issues at hand in a hackneyed pointless this-or-that sort of framework. It is not about unions and it is not about executives. It is about how actual *people* are being marginalized and the middle-class is evaporating before our eyes as we speak. It is about how we got into this “austere budget period”, not about executives and union leaders holding hands for a photo-Op. The goose is cooked, the fix is in. Thank you Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Obama. The question is, what are We The People gonna do about it, with our without the unions–not that they really care anyway.

  • #123583

    Roland Shield

    Do unions help or hurt government ?

    It would seem that to arrive at any reasonable answer to this question, one must first forward a commonly understood and clearly defined role of Government and unions in this country. This has yet to happen; thus, it is a rather vacuous question.

    Is there any middle ground for executives and unions in austere budget periods ?

    Remember is school when they said, “There are no dumb questions.” ? Well, they weren’t referring to this one, because it is indeed a very dumb question. Why ? Because it frames the issues at hand in a hackneyed pointless this-or-that sort of framework. It is not about unions and it is not about executives. It is about how actual *people* are being marginalized and the middle-class is evaporating before our eyes as we speak. It is about how we got into this “austere budget period”, not about executives and union leaders holding hands for a photo-Op. The goose is cooked, the fix is in. Thank you Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Obama. The question is, what are We The People gonna do about it, with our without the unions–not that they really care anyway.

  • #123581

    Denise Petet

    Unions exist because workers feel powerless. they feel victimized and put upon and, well used by management. They get angry at having their salary or benefits cut unilaterally…’the boss’ decides ‘i need to maintain my profit margin to keep my share holders happy, and to do that you need to take a 5% cut in pay’. Or, in government ‘well, our taxes are down so our revenues are down so our budget has been cut so…we need to cut your pay to make up the difference’

    And, as a worker, when you see your pay being the consistent ‘go to’ to balance a budget, you get sick and tired of it.

    If management didn’t treat workers like renewable resources they wouldn’t be so angry. I have literally had a manager tell me, when a group complained about issues at work, that there were plenty of people that could fill our shoes and it’ would ‘be in our best interests’ to just let it go.

    So rather than deal with an issue, management tells employees ‘suck it up cause if you don’t i’ll just find someone that can’

    treatment like that breeds resentment and distrust, which is exactly teh atmosphere a union thrives in.

    so if management, etc, is ‘scared’ by the ‘evil union’….well if the atmosphere for employees was less ‘be grateful we lower ourselves to hire you’ and more respectful of employees as a whole, then any union wouldn’t find it so easy to step in

  • #123579

    john klossner

    I could not disagree with you more, Remi. Collective bargaining IS a right, otherwise people not in positions of power do not have a voice. Do you see the irony in your admonishing others to rely on teamwork but to reject unions?

  • #123577

    Robert Eckhardt

    The job of a union is to protect all employees; unfortunately this includes the incompetent ones. The issue becomes a lack of willingness to mitigate this by making sure there are clear enforceable metrics for employees to meet.

    I will support unions in my county until we pay a living wage. To me, it is unacceptable that we have county employees, working full time, who qualify for food stamps.

  • #123575

    Steve Ressler

    Good point

  • #123573

    James Spoerl

    What we are going through that shows exactly the need for unions. Politicians, produced from elections every two years, could replace everyone and eliminate all protections, wages and benefits on a whim/campaign promise, were it not for unions. Private industry has much more stability in that ownership and direction does not change that frequently. One accepts lower wages/conditions in exchange for the stability provided by a union. Tearing down the public employees will do nothing for anyone, except to make us all poor. Many of the posters here have fallen for the big business kool-aid of unions=bad. 15 second sound bites sure must swing a lot of people…

  • #123571

    AFSCME probably saved my job and others at my office. As you may know, the Illinois budget is in a constant state of trouble and there were serious thoughts about laying off workers. The union helped broker a deal where we would pass over a cost-of-living increase and take furlough days and the State wouldn’t lay anyone off.

    I can not tell you how difficult it would have been to try to provide services with half our people…

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