Joseph A. McCartin's Op-Ed article on Tuesday pointing out that collective bargaining for public employees has only recently become controversial prompted reader Betty W. Hosie of La Jolla to write:
"McCartin missed a few points. He did not mention Franklin Roosevelt's letter in 1934 stating there should never be collective bargaining in government. In 1955, George Meany, president of AFL-CIO, agreed with him, stating that when government strikes, it strikes against the taxpayer.
"Nor did McCartin mention how many states and localities have agreed to pay pensions they cannot afford.
"In the private sector, the owners, the employees and the unions all sit at the table and negotiate. In government, the elected officials and the unions negotiate. The owners — that is, the taxpayers — are not even in the building. Often, the same elected officials have been supported by the unions."
Joseph A. McCartin responds:
Those who assert that Roosevelt opposed collective bargaining by government employees rip his statements out of context. It is true that he distinguished between public and private sector labor relations. But so did subsequent presidents who supported collective bargaining, such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It is also true that Roosevelt worried that unionization might lead to strikes by federal workers in the turbulent 1930s. Consequently, he never implemented collective bargaining across the federal government. But his position was both sympathetic to unions and evolving; he allowed collective bargaining for the Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance.
George Meany, founding president of the AFL-CIO, advocated public sector collective bargaining as an alternative to strikes (there was a rash of government worker walkouts after World War II). Anti-unionists often quote Meany criticizing government strikes, ignoring the fact that he made his statements to defend collective bargaining as a means of avoiding them.
In the private sector, unions don't negotiate with "owners" (i.e. stockholders) but rather with those hired by the owners: management. If managers negotiate bad contracts, they can be fired. The same holds in the public sector, where elected officials are the managers and voters the "owners."
Bargaining does not lead inevitably to unfunded pensions; bad government does. States without union bargaining have also failed to fund their promises. Indeed, the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds no statistical relationship between unionization and pension underfunding.
And before characterizing government pensions as bloated, remember that most public workers have accepted less in salary on average than comparably skilled private workers in the belief that they were deferring compensation, and many are not covered by Social Security.
Neither history nor private sector analogies undermines the wisdom of recognizing public workers' voices. So instead of scapegoating, we should address the failure of the private sector to deliver enough decent jobs with benefits and secure retirements. It's this massive failure that has placed public workers in the cross hairs.