Thursday, May 08, 2008

Economic Growth, Worker Income and Unions

May 8, 2008, 8:15 a.m.

Department of "Iowa's Economic Growth." I occasionally write here about economic development for Iowa emphasizing both "what works" (see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Learn from What Works," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 20, 2006) and what doesn't (see, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Courage, Councilors," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 3, 2007, p. A12; and Nicholas Johnson, "How To (And Not To) Grow Iowa's Economy," January 27, 28, 30, 2008.).

There seems to be great bewilderment as to why our children, and the young professionals we train from elsewhere, seem to leave the state. I've suggested a simple solution: pay them.

Pay workers enough and they'll even relocate to the coldest spots in Alaska -- or the hottest deserts in the Middle East. Surely Iowa can compete with those locations.

One cause of our unwillingness to use income as a magnet for workers is the state's anti-labor ideology. Iowa is a so-called right-to-work state -- and proud of it. The powers that be opposed even the "fair share" proposal that those who benefit from the higher wages unions make possible (such as the teachers who refuse to pay dues to the Iowa State Education Association -- but are happy to accept the raises it makes possible in their pay checks) should at least pay their fair share of the union's cost of negotiating those contracts. They opposed the recent public employee unions' legislative efforts. They've beaten back the fair compromise called "project labor agreements."

Nor is the University of Iowa immune from this anti-union stance.

Notwithstanding the fact that nurses in Iowa rank at the bottom of the states in wages (so much so that Iowa inexplicably ranks 52nd out of 50 states -- somebody explain that one to me) -- leading to (surprise!) a nurses shortage, the University opposed the efforts of the SEIU to unionize them.

The University seems to prefer dealing with non-union contractors. Were they the source of whoever ended up burning the dome off of the Old Capitol?

Most recently, the University of Iowa has been taken to task by the courts for violating its own agreement with its very own graduate students working as teaching assistants. In short, it is not enough that the laws all cut in favor of employers over employees, the University believes it is entitled to even more.

An administrative law judge ruled the Board of Regents and the University of Iowa bargained in bad faith while negotiating the 2007-09 contract with the graduate workers union.

The judge for the State of Iowa Public Employment Relations found that actions of the regents and the UI showed a "reckless disregard" for the Public Employment Relations Act when bargaining with UE Local 896/COGS (Campaign to Organize Graduate Students) . . ..
Trish Mehaffey, "Judge Rules Regents, UI Violated Law," The Gazette, May 6, 2008.

Aside from the occasional violations of the few pro-employee laws that do exist in Iowa, legislators and their campaign contributors do, of course, have the right to make the laws whatever they want them to be -- within the limits of the Constitution.

But they can't have it both ways.

They can't do everything in their power to block the efforts of workers to engage in collective action, and to drive down wages (including benefits, health care, safety, retirement, and so forth), and then complain of a "worker shortage," bemoan the fact our young people want to leave the state, and wonder at the mystery of why nurses seem to be disappearing.

The Register didn't go so far as to appear pro-union this morning, but it did forcefully recognize in an editorial that pay may have something to do with the ability of a state to attract and retain workers:

For the past decade, the state generally has pursued a two-pronged approach to economic development: Encourage creation of more high-wage jobs and expansion of amenities to enhance quality of life. That emphasis should continue, paired with commitment to creating world-class schools to better prepare Iowa's students for the rigor of college or other post-secondary training. . . . Businesses must be willing to pay more competitive salaries, too. A January report from the Generation Iowa Commission blamed lagging wages as a key reason young professionals leave.
Editorial, "Brain Drain Requires Even More Attention," Des Moines Register, May 8, 2008.

And you won't want to miss State29's take on the subject at State29, "Why Does Iowa Have a Brain Drain? Let Me Count the Ways," May 8, 2008.


Project Vote Smart I also want to give the Register credit for its endorsement of Project Vote Smart the other day.
It's that time of year when schoolchildren and college students are facing big tests as the school year winds to a close. Political candidates across the country are facing a test, too, and the only way to flunk is to refuse to participate. Yet, in Iowa in recent years, the overwhelming majority of state legislative candidates have done just that.

Editorial, "Candidates, Tell Iowa Your Stands on Issues,"
Des Moines Register, May 6, 2008.

See, Nicholas Johnson, "Project Vote Smart" in "Process: Parental Leave & Project Vote Smart," May 1, 2008. I concluded that discussion:

So what can we do?

We can write letters to the editor of our local papers, urging them to use their much longer and stronger levers of power to pry participation out of our local candidates.

We can write the candidates themselves, and ask them in open meetings why they haven't participated.

We can help support the work of Project Vote Smart.

And given [the newspapers'] commendable focus on this issue over time, I'd like to politely suggest that [they] might want to turn some reporters' resources, and space in the paper, to reporting -- by name -- which candidates are refusing to participate, along with the positions on the issues of those who do.
How about it, Register?

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1 comment:

John Barleykorn said...


I challenge the concept of the need for collective bargaining for professional positions. The labor market for RN's is hot. They have plenty of leverage; They have many many possibilities for employment. More than most professions. Certainly more than non-bargaining white collar positions. The concept of unions in todays labor market is somewhat an anachronism for many professions. Certainly, its more appropriate for non-professional positions. I do not think Nurses or grad students do themselves any favors by being in unions. The entire collective bargaining process is brutal. It is the job of management in a fact finding or arbitration to lessen the employees value to the organization. It is not something as a professional that I enjoyed. I did in fact value many of them, but the nature of the collective bargaining process is by its nature adversarial. I challenge anyone who has participated in an arbitration hearing to tell me otherwise.

I do not mean to diminish things that organized labor has done over the years for many workers.