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Ohio: Issue 2, Collective Bargaining and the Moral High Ground

As you may know, there is a critically important issue being debated here in Ohio that has long term implications for politics, public policy and the health of Ohio’s economy.

Issue 2 is a result of a union led attempt to repeal Senate Bill 5 – legislation which brought much needed reform to Ohio’s collective bargaining laws.  A yes vote allows these important reforms to go into effect which will give much needed flexibility to government at all levels and will remove barriers to merit based management.

But this will not be a detailed and technical examination of the law and its impact. Instead, what I want to do is highlight the fundamentally deceptive and anti-democratic and anti-republican (small r) nature of the opposition forces.

The fundamental problem for the unions is that the vast majority of Ohioans are not members of unions and, as taxpayers, support effective and efficient government.  In a fast paced information based world, and with budgets as tight as they have ever been, this means breaking up the stranglehold unions have had on government.

Elected leaders and managers have to have the ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Success should be determined by talent and hard work not mere seniority. Benefits should reflect economic reality and be comparable to the private sector; not gold plated rewards based on political power and the ability to hold communities hostage. Staffing should be flexible and based on what is needed to get the job done not arbitrary and locked in numbers.

When explained in clear simple language most Ohioans support these basic ideas.  They understand in their gut that even if we wanted to we simply can’t continue to act as if government is exempt from economic reality.  The fundamental question is why public sector unions believe they are so different, so special, that they should be allowed to avoid facing these facts; facts that the majority of workers have long since adjusted to (often painfully).

Obviously, the unions can’t simply ask taxpayers outright for more sacrifice so that they can continue to avoid facing reality. Instead, what they attempt to do is assume the moral high ground so that basic economic facts are ignored and this becomes a rhetorical battle of good guys versus bad guys.

They do this in numerous ways. One is to make the issue about public safety and education.  You don’t win a lot of heart and minds defending overpaid janitors or  bureaucrats whose pay continues to go up simply by managing not to get fired.

No, instead they play on public sympathy by making the issue about teachers and firefighters, policeman and nurses; and imply that any reform to the system threatens the community.  We tend to think of these professions as caring and community orientated; and often as underappreciated.

This makes sense. Always put your most sympathetic face forward. But there is a subtle aspect to this argument that is actually dangerous and corrosive. The underlying argument is that elected officials acting on behalf of voters will put lives at risk in order to save money.

It is easy to demonize politicians – and sometimes for good reason – but it is also dangerous to allow the unions to undermine the basic structures of our political system.  Using a tool of direct democracy they are in fact undermining our republican and democratic structure by keeping power in the hands of unelected and unrepresentative union bosses.

In ads, testimony and public arguments the unions are constantly insinuating that the only thing preventing crime from increasing and policeman from being sent into the worst neighborhoods without protection or backup is union power.  Your child’s education, so the argument goes, is dependent on union control. And in the same way, hospitals and other public safety entities will only keep you safe if they are controlled by unions.

In this way, the unions – who are the very definition of self-interested parties – want to pretend that this is about the community. They want to assume the moral high ground over against the greedy politicians. But this is in fact the opposite of the moral landscape.

As noted above, the unions are arguing in favor of rules and policies that directly impact their pay and benefits.  They want to keep the power they have and thus increase the likelihood they will keep the pay and benefits they have traditionally been able to negotiate.  There is nothing wrong with this as long as we are honest and up front about it. They are entitled to negotiate for what they think are their best interests; to protect what they have.

But what has to be kept clear in our minds is that, in important ways, they are arguing against the public interest and common good.  Public sector unions are not taking power out of the hands of management acting on behalf of shareholders but out of the hands of duly elected representatives acting on behalf of voters and citizens.  The costs involved come not out of the profits but out of taxes.

It is this fundamental truth which the unions refuse to acknowledge: the public deserves to make decisions about public funds not union bosses. But public sector unions, and their private sector allies, insist that somehow their self-interest is directly tied to the public interest – and insist that they have the moral high ground – as a result their arguments are deceptive and often insulting.

Despite the foibles and weaknesses of individual politicians and government entities, these are the proper decision makers for questions of how to manage and spend the public’s money.  Politicians are accountable to voters and work within a system that is, however imperfectly, set up to allow voters to make their voices heard.  And when voters are unhappy that can force change; and particularly at the local level, vote with their feet if necessary.

A no vote on Issue 2 means elevating the interests of a small minority – public sector unions bosses – over the public good.  And it undermines the proper locus for decision making in our republic – with the public and their chosen representatives.

Issue 2 obviously has important ramifications for budgets at the state and local level, but we should also keep in mind that this is also a battle over fundamental principles. We can’t afford to allow the unions to deceptively claim the moral high ground.

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