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Pay more for better work? Sounds suspicious

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted June 11, 2001

Workers have a right to unionize; unions in this country can be rightly proud of what they've accomplished over the decades -- negotiating mine and workplace safety, improved wage and benefits packages for skilled workers in many trades, the list goes on.

Why is it, then, that trade unions in America today seem to be losing ground in so many of those traditional industries -- while either failing utterly or declining to even try to organize highly-paid professionals in such new and highly paid careers as software and silicon chip development?

The days of 5 o'clock factory whistle are fading. As is regularly decried by the xenophobes, protectionists and various other know-nothings, America has in effect exported many of its lower-paying jobs, preferring to have foreigners weave our baskets and stamp out our plastic ice-cream scoops. Such menial tasks as could not be exported are increasingly mechanized. Could it be the natural development of capitalism and the industrial revolution moves toward higher-wage, lower-risk employment that makes traditional union organizing seem progressively less relevant?

For whatever reason, unions today (for all that they continue trying to organize maids, bellhops, and cashiers) are a growth industry in only one sector: government work.

Why would that be? Perhaps because bureaucracy is the one place where the normal rules of the capitalist free market are pretty much suspended, anyway.

In Las Vegas, the Clark County Commission on June 5 unanimously did away with its employee merit pay system, after years of hearing union agents complain that it only allowed county department managers to foment unrest by "playing favorites."

Under the old system, all employees got a 4 percent annual cost-of-living raise on July 1. Then, on top of that, employees could get merit raises of 0 to 6 percent on their employment anniversaries, based on their supervisors' evaluation of their contributions and performance. The union now says it prefers capping all raises at 8 percent, an offer the county accepted on the assumption it will thus save about $1 million per year.

(The county figures annual raises, with merit thrown in, have actually been averaging 8.2 percent per year. The union challenges that figure, contending its members have only been receiving an average 7.7 percent annual hike -- 3.7 percent being the "merit" component. The county replies that the new deal will affect all 10,000 county employees, not just the 4,000 that belong to the union -- and taxpayers will thus save the $1 million when the new deal is applied to that larger employee base.)

"It wasn't fair," whines Nevada Service Employees Union manager Tom Beatty. "It was very subjective" to allow supervisors to allow who got the larger raises and who did not.

There's an old saying in Russia that a socialist is a person who -- if he can't have a pig of his own -- would rather see his neighbor's pig killed, since that would be more "fair." Anyone who thought that was merely a joke might want to review the current situation among Clark County workers: the union would rather see total compensation for those workers drop by $1 million, if in return it can end a system where some workers were rewarded for outstanding performance.

Why? Because outstanding performance can makes everyone else look bad by comparison, of course -- anathema to levelers everywhere. I went to work as a summer replacement mailman when I was a gung ho youngster of 18. I can still remember being taken aside by a delegate from my fellow carriers after a few days and told in no uncertain terms that a route rated at seven hours had better take seven hours -- none of this coming back with the route done at noon and looking for more work. Go read a book in the park; play pinball in the back room of the pizza parlor; they didn't care. Just so I didn't make everyone else look bad.

Ever watched four county employees change a street sign, or the light bulb in a stoplight? Notice one young fellow working with particular zeal in hopes of drawing the attention of his supervisor and thus earning a merit raise? No, I didn't think so.

Isn't it curious how even such regimented outfits as the military seem to be able to award medals and grant promotions based on "merit" and outstanding performance without worrying unduly about the "effect on morale" and "breakdown of solidarity" likely to result from the jealousy of those who are passed over? No, only in the civilian government bureaucracy do we see this adamant resistance to the system which leads star athletes to be paid so much more than the also-rans who warm the bench and hand out the towels.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E for Easy, Reno, NV 89502 -- or dialing 775-348-8591. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • The case for a national Right to Work Act by David Kendrick (January 22, 2001)
    David Kendrick argues that a national Right to Work Act would allow employees to decide if they want to join a union -- and by extension what political causes they want to support
  • Unions: paragons of virtue by Steve Martin (January 24, 2000)
    Steve Martin ruminates on unions and their oftentimes noxious effect on us all

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