What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.
The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.
Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.
** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.
For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. This issue has been around a long time (see here and here), but, given the tenor of the current debate, it seems to bear rehashing. According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. These contracts are thought to include “harmful” provisions, such as seniority-based layoffs and unified salary schedules that give raises based on experience and education rather than performance.
But a fairly large proportion of public school teachers are not covered under legally-binding contracts. In fact, there are ten states in which there are no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). Districts in a few of these states have entered into what are called “meet and confer” agreements about salary, benefits, and other working conditions, but administrators have the right to break these agreements at will. For all intents and purposes, these states are free of many of the alleged “negative union effects."
Here’s a simple proposition: If teacher union contracts are the problem, then we should expect to see higher achievement outcomes in the ten states where there are no binding teacher contracts.
So, let’s take a quick look at how states with no contracts compare with the states that have them.
In a previous post, I criticized articles in the USA Today and elsewhere (all citing data from the conservative Cato Institute), which claimed that federal government workers earn almost twice as much as private sector employees (including salary and benefits). I argued that en masse comparisons of public and private sector workers don’t tell us much, since the jobs that comprise the two sectors are very different.
For a more useful comparison, we need to understand not only that most public sector workers are professionals, but also that they tend to be more experienced, and more quickly promoted, than the typical private sector employee. For example, a lead research scientist will earn more than his or her staff scientists, whether they are working in the public or the private sector. So, if public sector employees in a given occupation tend to be more experienced or have more authority or responsibilities, they will appear “overpaid” even though they are not.
So, how does the public/private wage gap look when we compare professionals in the two sectors by both occupation and experience/responsibilities?
In a recent post, we discussed the explosive growth in privatization of public services, including one town that recently privatized everything and everybody. Along similar lines, this week, the Wall Street Journal published a story about desperate state and local governments, squeezed by declining revenues, selling or leasing public property to private interests. The reporter notes:
Cities and states across the nation are selling and leasing everything from airports to zoos—a fire sale that could help plug budget holes now but worsen their financial woes over the long run.
The notion that we should cede public services to the private sector has assumed the status of quasi-religious dogma in recent years. There was a brief time during the earlier, more dire days of the current recession during which many began to question this market fundamentalism. Such dissent continues in some circles today. But you wouldn’t know it looking at actual policy.
Things may even be getting worse. Cash-strapped governments have stepped up efforts in a new area: privatization of public assets.
With today’s Senate passage of the new public sector jobs bill, the federal government’s role in stimulating the economy is once again in the limelight. The use of public dollars to leverage jobs in the private sector is even more controversial. Historically (and today) U.S. business wants government to "get out of the way," and let market forces determine outcomes (at least until they themselves need to be bailed out). The priority is "maximizing shareholder value." The fewer workers you need to do that, or the lower their cost, the better.
Still, some worry that the axiom of maximizing shareholder value lately has been taken to a destructive extreme. One of those is Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and still a consultant to the U.S. chip-making giant. In a recent interview in Business Week, Grove noted that U.S. business is "...largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better."
The question in the headline is fundamental when trying to understand attitudes towards organized labor, as well as the relatively low union presence in the U.S. The "if I can't have it, nobody can" attitude that anti-labor advocates try to promote among non-members packs far less punch if people understand that many of the conditions they take for granted - trivial things like sick days, minimum wages, and yes, weekends - are in no small part thanks to past and current efforts of the U.S. labor movement. Awareness of these efforts, and of the positive union effect on everyone's wages and benefits, is also, no doubt, partially dependent on one's experience with unions (e.g., coming from a "union family").
So, it might be instructive to take a quick look at attitudes towards labor's effects in the U.S. compared with those in other nations, and whether this appears to be related to the degree of unionization. Basically - do Americans think unions help all workers, and how do our attitudes stack up against other nations?