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Labor Day no longer a picnic for unions

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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A most peculiar Labor Day weekend approaches.

It's well known that organized labor crossed a line nobody ever foresaw awhile back.

Unions in private industry were losing members and government steadily gaining them — and the seesaw tipped. Less than half of all American unionized employees now work for a boss that has to show a profit.

Over 50 percent work for government at all levels, federal, state, local and school district.

Still, most of the organized workers pay dues and have union cards, so their interests ought to be harmonious.

But if you follow the dollars, the perfectly natural-seeming demands of the government workers for “more” run squarely against the long-term interests of private sector workers.

Nobody in the labor movement dwells on this too much. It's not a favorite theme of Labor Day speakers. It might even make it awkward for workers from a steel plant, drilling rig or construction site, say, to march to the same drummer with school teachers, bus drivers or tax clerks in a parade.

But union workers in government typically enjoy pay, benefits, pensions and health care substantially out of line vs. the similar-job norms in industry. Personnel is a big cost of government, a service industry after all. Government's costs aren't paid voluntarily by customers but by taxpayers. And the latter include millions of working folks.

Income taxes and more also have to be paid by private sector employers. Taxes are one of the major upward pressures on business operating costs and hence on the ability to compete.

The public-private conflict, rarely so visible as it has been this year, has to make labor solidarity less than perfect. One side raises the other's costs.

There's another point of conflict. Government workers' unions enjoy big political clout. Politicians, supposedly the elected leaders of everybody, are the “employers.” In effect, the workers elect their own bosses. It creates a symbiotic relationship, one organism feeding, and feeding off of, the other.

If you're a private sector company, there are limits to how high your costs and prices can go. Customers resist, they'll buy elsewhere. That's a very common way businesses and jobs die. The marketplace rules, and cruel as it seems, it benefits society as a whole with better and cheaper goods and services.

Government doesn't follow these rules or pretend not to. Its costs — the higher taxes it imposes — hurt the competitiveness of industries and job holders in their borders. Many an American hometown beloved by its natives has lost population and economic vitality (and don't the two really go together?) by ruinously high costs.

Hard to believe, isn't it, that three cities in California — the Golden State — have filed for bankruptcy since last Labor Day. Mainly they've had to get out from under impossible pension costs imposed by overreaching unions and under-thinking politicos. Wisconsin's governor outlasted riots at the capitol building to get control of bargaining abuses that were busting the state.

The federal government never bargained collectively before 1962 — and welcome to trillion-dollar deficits now.

Pay-up time for government debt traceable in part to labor contracts will hit workers' families too. A sobering thought, that, for Labor Day.

Jack Markowitz writes Thursdays. Email

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