Customers and Owners

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For many people taking sides on the debate regarding collective bargaining in the public sector has been easy.  Reflex, after all, is less work than reflection. But for some of us this is a challenging issue because when it comes to government we are both consumer and owner. Those are different and sometimes contradictory things.

As a consumer I definitely prefer having alternatives and I always like paying less, whether for a computer or garbage service. Even if I'm particularly fond of a product, I don't like feeling ripped off, or abused by an employee, public or private.

But as a taxpayer and voter, I am, like it or not, an owner of this enterprise we call government. Shareholders are interested in efficiency and cost control, and yet, like all investments, my ownership is more valuable if the enterprise is committed to excellence. The best alternative may not be the cheapest. Keeping faith with the enterprise's mission is essential. With government that equation can be intrinsically difficult to measure. This is not because what it does is worthless. Quite the opposite. What it does often deals with issues of life and health that don't come with price tags.

We need to remember that many corporations have awarded executives with pay and severance packages wildly excessive relative to the value they added. So whether it's a corporate board of directors or a school board what matters is not so much how the parties are organized but the level of scrutiny that the agreements get from the people who wind up paying the bill.

This controversy is rife with irony. The fiercest advocates for the abolition of collective bargaining in the public sector are the most likely to characterize government employees collectively. And advocates for collective bargaining are often quick to point out the individual contributions of hard working public employees. 


The larger political dimension raises yet another: public sector unions are a potent counterweight to the political clout of corporations, collective entities whose political financial contributions the Supreme Court has deemed expressions of individual free speech. That leads to the following sad conclusion: in the end it's all about the money, when it should be about so much more.
With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.