Tag: unions

The Postal Service’s Union Problem

Comments from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a recent hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s woes indicate they don’t appreciate the USPS’s union problem. Postmaster General John Potter went before the committee to make his case for restructuring the postal operation, including greater labor flexibility.

From GovExec.com:

“You have to find people meaningful work, or no matter how compassionate you are, you’re not doing them any favors,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticizing holding rooms where underemployed postal workers wait until there are tasks for them to perform. “How many billions of dollars would have been saved if you’d aggressively right-sized the force before you came to us and said you want to go from six days [of mail delivery] to five?”

Congressman Issa should be informed that it is union rules that prevent postal management from laying off underemployed postal workers and having to put them in holding rooms.

Issa told Potter during his opening statement that the Postal Service has “more or less a third more people than you need,” but he said it “is not really acceptable” to convert full-time jobs to part-time positions, unless applicants are looking specifically for part-time work or part-time positions that lead to full-time work. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said she was concerned that part-time workers might not be treated fairly or could be excluded from collective bargaining agreements.

Lawmakers insisted repeatedly that even as the Postal Service confronts harsh financial realities, the agency must take into consideration the jobs of postal workers. “I’m hopeful this committee will find a way to deal with it that preserves the good faith that the people who serve the U.S. Postal Service have a right to expect,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

These members might want to read the Government Accountability Office’s latest report on the USPS, which called the mail monopoly’s business model “not viable.” Union labor is part of the problem. The average postal employee earns $83,000 a year in total compensation and 85 percent of its workforce is covered by collective bargaining agreements. Labor accounts for 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure.

The GAO cites the following as reasons why USPS labor costs are so high:

  • The USPS covers a higher proportion of employee premiums for health care and life insurance than most other federal agencies, which is impressive because it’s hard to be more generous than federal agencies.
  • USPS workers participate in the federal workers’ compensation program, which generally provides larger benefits than the private sector. And instead of retiring when eligible, USPS workers can stay on the “more generous” workers’ compensation rolls.
  • Collective bargaining agreements limit the amount of part-time and contract workers the USPS can use to fit its workload needs, and they limit managers from assigning work to employees outside of their crafts. The latter explains why you get stuck waiting in line at the post office while other postal employees seemingly oblivious to customers’ needs go about doing less important tasks.
  • Most postal employees are protected by “no-layoff” provisions, and the USPS must let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.
  • If the collective bargaining process reaches binding arbitration, there is no statutory requirement for the USPS’s financial condition to be considered. This is like making the decision whether or not to go fishing, but not taking into consideration the fact that the boat has holes in its bottom.

The fact that Postmaster Potter has to go to Congress to plead for help to make business decisions points to a fundamental problem. Government-run businesses are necessarily hamstrung by the whims of politicians, who often only have a vague understanding of economics and business. If FedEx or UPS had to get congressional permission to manage its workforce, both would collapse. As mail volume falls, that’s where the USPS is headed unless we privatize it and deregulate postal markets.

Discouraging Speech through Disclosure

David Price, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from North Carolina, has introduced a bill, the Stand by Every Ad Act,  to mandate disclosure of support for political speech by business and union officials.

Rep. Price cites three harms from such speech: “the opportunity for corporations, unions and associations to dominate the playing field, intimidating public officials and drowning out the candidates’ own messages.”

Notice that these alleged harms are caused by the speech itself and not by the fact that the speech might be anonymous. Notice also that Rep. Price provides no evidence at all that such harms will take place. Where would such evidence be found? Prior to McCain-Feingold, corporations and unions could fund speech. Several states also have permitted independent corporate expenditures. What happened in those years or those states to support Rep. Price’s extreme claims?

It is striking that two of the three harms cited by Rep. Price concern only members of Congress. He claims members will be intimidated or have their “own messages” drowned out. What Rep. Price does not say is how these problems for members of Congress would translate into problems for voters.  Of course, such arguments about the welfare of voters exist, but they are not obvious to most people. Rep. Price, however, saw no need to make the connection between an alleged harm done to a member and the interests of voters.  His argument is centered on the interests and concerns of incumbent members of Congress.  Apparently members consider first their own interests in thinking about campaign finance regulations.

Rep. Price also ignores the fact that voters are likely to receive more information about candidates for office after Citizens United since the hand of the censor has been lifted.

Rep. Price clearly believes mandated disclosure by business and union leaders will effectively discourage them from speaking out during elections.  Given that motivation behind the new disclosures laws, at what point does mandated disclosure translate into chilled speech?

One other disturbing part of Rep. Price’s case for his bill: he hopes to extend disclosure to the Internet.  Of course, disclosure of Internet speech may well lead to other restrictions on speech online.

Unions, Productivity, and the 2010 Economic Report of the President

I’ve become a fan over the years of the annual Economic Report of the President, released around this time each year by the Council of Economic Advisers. The more than 100 tables in the back of the book provide an invaluable picture of the economy over many decades, covering all the major indicators from output and employment to interest rates and trade. Each report also contains chapters explaining the economic thinking behind administration policies.

Chapter 10 of the latest report focuses on “Fostering Productivity Growth through Innovation and Trade.” For critics of trade, it offers sound economic reasons why trade raises U.S. productivity and, thus, over the long run, U.S. living standards.

One of ways trade promotes growth is “Firm Productivity.” Economists have come to appreciate that firms within an industry will differ in their productivity. Those that are more productive will tend to grow and prosper in larger and more competitive global markets. As a result,

when a country opens to trade, more productive firms grow relative to less productive firms, thus shifting labor and other resources to the better organized firms and increasing overall productivity. Even if workers do not switch industries, they move from firms that are either poorly managed or that use less advanced technology and production processes toward the more productive firms.

The report doesn’t mention this, but one reason why firms differ in their productivity is unionization. As I spell out in an “Economic Watch” column in today’s Washington Times, and explore in more detail in the latest Cato Journal, unionized firms tend to lose market share to non-unionized firms:

The weight of evidence indicates that, for most firms in most sectors, unionization leaves companies less able to compete successfully. The core problem is that unions cause compensation to rise faster than productivity, eroding profits while at the same time reducing the ability of firms to remain price-competitive. The result over time is that unionized firms have tended to lose market share to non-unionized firms, in domestic as well as international markets.

Compared to equivalent non-unionized competitors, unionized firms are associated with lower profits, less investment in physical capital, and less spending on research and development. By exposing an industry (say, automobiles) to more vigorous international competition, trade accelerates the shift from less competitive unionized firms to more competitive non-unionized firms.

Economists serving a Democratic administration would be understandably reluctant to say such a thing explicitly, but it is certainly there between the lines in Chapter 10 of the new Economic Report of the President.

How the Washington Post Covers Education

Yesterday, the president proposed yet another big increase in federal education spending. The Washington Post quoted ”senior White House officials” as saying that the spending would boost “the nation’s long-term economic health.”

I sent the story’s authors a blog post laying out the evidence that higher government spending hasn’t raised student achievement, and that if you don’t boost achievement, you don’t accelerate economic growth.

Today, there is an updated version of the original WaPo story. It no longer mentions the stated goal of the spending increase. It doesn’t mention that boosting gov’t spending has failed to raise achievement, and so will fail to help the economy.

But it does cite a single non-government source for comment on the president’s plan: the Committee for Education Funding. The Committee is described by the Post as “prominent education advocates,” and as an organization that “represents dozens of education groups.”

Here’s how the CEF itself measures its accomplishments: “The… Committee [has] been very successful in championing the cause of increasing federal educational investment. Through strong advocacy… [it has] won bipartisan support for over $100 billion in increased federal education investment over the last five years.” Its members, if you haven’t guessed already, include virtually every public school employee organization you can name, including, of course, the national teachers unions.

That’s the source, the one source, the Washington Post asked to weigh in on a new federal education spending gambit.

I asked the author of the revised version of the story to comment for this blog post. At the time of this writing, I’ve received no response.

Weekend Links

  • The G.O.P.’s next move on health care: “The challenge for Republicans is not to try to ‘do’ things just like the Democrats but a little less expensively or with a little less bureaucracy, but to present an agenda of personal and economic liberty as a positive alternative… [Republicans] will have to show that this time they are in favor of something positive. It’s called freedom.”

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.

Huh?

Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.