Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Playing Referee Between Media Matters and the Heritage Foundation

Today, the Heritage Foundation responded to a Media Matters report fact checking a video put out by Heritage on EFCA.

A little complicated to be sure, but here's the gist: In the video put out by Heritage there's an interview with a former union negotiator who states that the "balance of power" that currently exists between labor and employers during contract negotiations will be tilted heavily toward labor by EFCA. He also claims that labor will have no incentive to bargain in good faith, knowing that the government will step in after 90 days and make a binding contract decision.

Media matters responds that 1) Arbitration is not 'Mandatory' if Both Parties are Negotiating in Good Faith 2) Arbitration Encourages Voluntary Settlement 3) Arbitration Does Not Inflate Wages and 4) EFCA Doesn't Give Unions Too Much Power, It Gives Worker A Voice. (all points are pulled verbatim from MM)

As self-appointed arbitor of this dispute, I'm going to call bullshit on both sides.

The fundamental problem here is that both arguments rest almost exclusively on one completely unknown factor: the disposition and diligence of the arbitration board.

Heritage claims that:
"permitting the government to impose contracts would imbalance negotiations and give unions every incentive to send the contract to the government to write". Because the "government arbitrator would impose those (contracts), without the benefit of a previous contract to look back on. And unlike public sector arbitration there are no standards for the arbitrator to use. None at all. Which is why Wathen explained that — if EFCA became law — collective bargaining negotiators like himself would make extreme demands and hope to get part of what they asked for".
All this would be precisely true if, in fact, government arbitrators turned out to be ignorant, lefty dupes. But, presumably, they'll have all kinds of "previous contract(s)" to look back on, perhaps not with that specific union, but with similar unions doing similar work. One would further assume that they'll have access to all kinds of relevant data concerning relative living wages, percent of union saturation within the field, profitability of the company, etc.

Heritage takes issue with the incentive a union might have for engaging in bad faith negotiation with the hope of bringing forth a government arbiter, without noting that current labor law provides a huge incentive for employers to engage in bad faith negotiations for 12 months until the union is dissolved due to lack of a contract. This happens all the time. That's exactly what EFCA was designed to prevent. Now, Heritage probably doesn't see the current situation as a problem (which is a perfectly arguable viewpoint), but it's disingenuous to talk about incentive without acknowledging the nature of how things currently operate.

As for MM, I'll address them point by point.

1) Arbitration is not 'Mandatory' if Both Parties are Negotiating in Good Faith: Arbitration is forced and binding after 90 days. Semantically engaging the phrase 'mandatory arbitration' misses the point. It's the contract that's mandatory, and it's the contract that matters. It's important to repeat this point: The biggest issue facing labor is that a large percentage of the time units that vote to collectively bargain can't settle on a contract. Binding arbitration negates that possibility. Media Matters keeps pouncing on this distinction without a difference, and winds up being disingenuous and confusing at the same time.

2) Arbitration Encourages Voluntary Settlement: This is again wholly dependent on the disposition of the arbitration panel, but it's almost certainly true to the degree that both sides are risk adverse (a fairly safe assumption in most cases).

3) Arbitration Does Not Inflate Wages: This is lazy, sloppy, and misleading. I apologize for the following wonkishness, but this is important and needs to be contextualized. MM cites a study done by a partisan group actively advocating for EFCA. Sadly, this isn't even the problem. This study cites another study that looks at the wages of police officers in 32 states, some of which have arbitration regimes and some of which don't. One of many, many problems with citing this as evidence of homogeneous wages is that all of the studied police forces were previously unionized. We don't know what effect this would have on unions attempting to form, but since the point of collective bargaining is ostensibly to negotiate from a position of relative power it's idiotic to believe that wages would remain stagnant after binding arbitration is enacted. It's also important to note that police forces are 1) public entities and 2) high profile. It doesn't look good to have cops on strike in a way that doesn't translate for plumbers, or pipefitters, or most other unions. This police officer study is comparing apples to oranges at best, and shouldn't be cited as evidence to predict future wage changes.

4) EFCA Doesn't Give Unions Too Much Power, It Gives Worker A Voice: Yawn. Nice slogan.

To summarize, in this particular pissing contest, neither side is dry, and I'm hard pressed to declare a winner.

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