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Kevin Korenthal: Big Labor’s cause no longer noble

Posted: June 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 22, 2012 2:00 a.m.

The dawn of the labor movement began in the early 1800s in America, a young country already well-known as the incubator of some of the most radical social thinking in the world at the time.

With practices like indentured servitude and debtor’s prison only recently abolished, the free workers — sick of low pay, too many hours and poor working conditions — rose up in numbers with a common voice for change.

I don’t think I have ever met a single person who does not agree with that description of unions in their infancy. Even with all the grief I give Big Labor, I respect and admire how America’s labor movement created a common point of par for labor conditions — not just here in America, but all over the world.

After labor achieved the remarkable results that history tells us of, it should have gone away. Instead, it sought to become part of our system of government.

From this position, labor movement supporters have been able to control elections, determine education priorities and have actually managed to lower standards of quality in the workplace.

Case in point is the insistence of teachers unions that workers cannot be fired for any reason without negotiating a labyrinth of complicated and arcane procedures that take years and usually end in the teacher receiving a full pension and a parting cash payout.

This policy is part of a larger power that teachers unions hold over “work rules.”

By controlling all aspects of the workplace, unions have managed to build schools that are good for teachers but offer no benefit to students who really only need a desk and a teacher that cares enough to ensure they are not overlooked and passed through the system without having mastered basic skills.

But the most consequential negative legacy that Big Labor has foisted upon the landscape is the runaway public employee pension obligation.

In California alone, the unfunded pension liability is more than $500 billion ($1.38 trillion nationally).

The number reached this level after decades of pandering by politicians to demonstrative Big Labor union bosses working to make themselves relevant to the membership.

Now that California’s economy is in the hole with cities on the edge of bankruptcy, Big Labor is resisting all attempts to reduce the burden that will be caused by future pensioners entering the system.

Public employee unions are not alone in their demands on the taxpayers. Beginning in the mid-1970s, private construction labor unions began spending money in political campaigns, placing that money with candidates that saw unions as the natural arbiter of public works construction.

Starting with huge energy projects, unions began pushing bidding language on public construction known as project labor agreements or PLAs.

Unions spread money automatically deducted from workers’ paychecks to sympathetic candidates in municipalities where construction takes place.

Once elected, those that take union money are beholden to labor to enact these policies which require all workers on a project to be dispatched through the union hiring hall, paying dues to the union and contributing to the union pension and medical programs.

All of this is regardless of whether the winning bidder, and his workers are signatory to a union.

But California and the rest of the country are pushing back. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful defense against a recall that targeted his union reforms was remarkable. But that’s nothing compared to what Golden State voters in several large municipalities said to Big Labor in that same election.

The voters of San Jose and San Diego enacted real pension reform at the ballot box while the latter also enacted a ban on the use of PLAs on public construction.

El Cajon joined San Diego in a PLA ban and upped the ante by voting to become a charter city, which also gives it the power to exempt its construction from another costly union legacy: expensive state prevailing wage requirements.

Labor’s story is an instructive one: A noble cause that began in defense of abused workers turned that abuse on the very people that it once sought to serve.

By creating a more expensive government, unsustainable debt obligations and by discriminating against the vast majority of the construction industry that are nonunion, Big Labor has become the enemy it once fought against.

Time (and voters) will tell if this story has a happy ending.

Kevin D. Korenthal is a 30-year resident of the Santa Clarita Valley. He resides in Canyon Country with his wife and two children.


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