UNION BUSTING….Back in 2002, President Bush complained that Senate Democrats didn’t care about national security because they wouldn’t approve his plans for the new Department of Homeland Security. Of course, the thing Democrats disapproved of wasn’t DHS itself, which was their idea in the first place, it was Bush’s plans to gut civil service protections for DHS employees.

On Wednesday the plan for DHS was announced, and I think it highlights the difficult position facing unions today. According the the Washington Post, the new rules restrict the ability of unions to negotiate over “such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use.” Disputes will be arbitrated by an internal board instead of an independent agency, and the union claims that overall pay will also be reduced under the new rules.

These are all things that probably strike a lot of people as unfair, and if the union plays its cards correctly it might be able to build a fair amount of public sympathy for its position. But there’s also this:

A raise or promotion — moving up in a pay range or rising to the next one — will depend on receiving a satisfactory performance rating from a supervisor, said officials with homeland security and the Office of Personnel Management.

….”They are encouraging a management of coercion and intimidation,” said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He added: “This is not a modern system. This is a step backward.”

This is the point at which the public probably tunes out. Civil service protections were put in place to prevent political manipulation of government employees, not to guarantee endless promotions to mediocre workers regardless of their performance. If John Gage thinks that basing pay increases partly on the results of an annual review constitutes “a management of coercion and intimidation,” public support for his union will evaporate. To most people, paying for performance sounds pretty reasonable.

I think this is one of the big dilemmas for old line unions like the industrial unions and the public employee unions. Most Americans support the idea that workers should be paid decently and treated fairly, and often support unions when those are the issues. But when the issue becomes a hardline defense of pure seniority or Byzantine work rules, it looks like unions are just defending the right not to work very hard. Nobody supports that, especially for people being paid with tax dollars.

This has the effect of reducing overall public support for unions, which in turn reduces the ability of unions to protect even the things where they do have public support. It’s a vicious circle.

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