Are Public Employees Winning or Losing?

Public policy these days is all about “winners” and “losers.”  From the fate of health care, to the prospect of a government shutdown, to upheaval in faraway places, analyses of these events are too often framed by the question:  who’s the winner and who is the loser?

Public Employees Demonstrating

So it is that in the current skirmishes between several governors and public service employees over the latter’s collective bargaining rights, there’s not much of an objective analysis of the myriad issues separating unions and state CEOs.  Instead, the confrontation is explained as a contest pitting Gov. Walker in Wisconsin (or Kasich in Ohio, Christie in New Jersey or Daniels in Indiana) versus the public employee unions, with a winner-take-all outcome in the balance. Check out most any social media site or blog, and you’ll find lots of folks eager and willing to declare victory or defeat.

The sports (or world war) metaphor is hard for the media to resist because it’s so clear-cut and simple. Politicians love the “win-lose” framework because they’re good at claiming victory even when they’ve lost (the way in which President Obama extended tax cuts for the wealthy, after vehemently opposing extension, is a good example).

No wonder, then, that your understanding of what’s at stake in the contentious debate over public employee bargaining rights might just be a bit confused.

On the one hand, in an article headlined “The Unions are Losing the PR Battle,” Boston Globe columnist Dianna Weiss writes that the unions representing public employees are the clear losers due, she explains, to inept public relations. It’s an interesting, albeit premature argument when you read the results of the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which indicates that public employee unions are “winning” the all-important contest of public perception. This poll says that a solid majority of Americans don’t want collective bargaining rights taken away from unions. That doesn’t sound like the unions’ PR efforts have failed; after all, the right to collectively bargain is the bedrock raison d’etre of the union movement. (It’s also worth noting that the Times/CBS poll shows that unions are finding support from independents — the swing voters who increasingly call the shots in national elections).

What’s the confused public policy wonk to make of all this?  Who is winning or losing the fight over union collective bargaining rights?

I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer, and won’t be. The issues are way too complex for anyone to assign triumph or defeat to either side. But most readers and listeners will likely come way — thanks to the superficial W or L analysis — concluding that one side beat the other.

If you carry the sports analogy just a bit farther, it quickly begins to break down as a useful tool of analysis. For one thing, neither “side” in this confrontation is in any way a “team.”  The issues in Wisconsin are similar to those in Indiana and Ohio, but there are also substantial differences that make each situation unique. For example, bargaining rights for fire fighters and police officers are at stake in Ohio, but not in Wisconsin. Moreover, the issues confronting one class of public employees, teachers, are far different than those facing municipal waste treatment plant workers. So, from the very outset, assigning winners and losers in such a complex situation simply doesn’t fly.

For another, who specifically gets to say who won or lost?  Where is the referee or judge who declares one side or the other the winner?  There isn’t one.  In fact, no matter the outcome, you can bet both the governors and the unions will claim victory, whatever the outcome.

Finally, there’s the general public’s stake in all this. Are they going to be winners or losers in the outcome of the debate?  Right now, that’s very hard to say.  Analysts, bloggers, and columnists are so wrapped up in establishing the odds (governors versus unions) that very little attention is paid to the rest of us, who are sitting in the stands trying to figure out what’s actually going on.

All of which suggests that we citizens should be wary of any analysis that is framed in the “winner vs. loser” framework. Sports, after all, are entertainment, but for the governors and the public employee unions, the issues at stake are no laughing matter.

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