Fighting The Last War

Michael Barone on the Taylorite origins of modern labor-union ideology and how unsuited that ideology is to unions of public employees who do not work on assembly-line jobs.
This is a slight tangent, but having read only glancingly about him over the years, I hadn’t known that Taylor was a fraud. It’s amazing how many of the most famous early celebrity “scientists” and pseudo-scientists this is true of – Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead, to pick a few obvious examples (Rachel Carson’s work stops short of outright fabrication of studies, but doesn’t stand up much better to retrospective scrutiny). One of the lessons we should have learned years ago is that really groundbreaking research needs to be double-checked – sometimes it’s completely bogus, and even when it’s diligently done, further evaluation usually turns up more qualifiers. And yet, the widely-publicized theories of these “pioneers” ended up lingering long in public consciousness.

15 thoughts on “Fighting The Last War”

  1. I don’t know how good of a study this particular author is referencing, but this is my sense, both by intuition and experience, of the public sector salary issue:
    “Scott Walker, the governor, is claiming he needs to destroy the state’s public-sector unions’ ability to negotiate in order to deal with its budget shortfall. State workers, he says, are paid too much. But the Economic Policy Institute tells us that, in Wisconsin, public-sector workers are not in fact paid more than their private-sector counterparts. They’re paid less. You can only make it appear that public-sector workers earn more by ignoring the fact that “both nationally and within Wisconsin, public sector workers are significantly more educated than their private sector counterparts.”
    Nationally, 54% of full-time state and local public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 35% of full-time private sector workers. In Wisconsin, the difference is even greater: 59% of full-time Wisconsin public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 30% of full-time private sector workers.
    …Public employees receive substantially lower wages, but much better benefits than their private sector counterparts. Wisconsin state and local governments pay public employees 14.2% lower annual wages than comparable private sector employees. On an hourly basis, they earn 10.7% less in wages. College-educated employees earn on average 28% less in wages and 25% less in total compensation in the public sector than in the private sector.
    The EPI study does find there’s a class of public-sector workers who earn a bit more than their private-sector counterparts: those without high-school degrees. In other words, district attorneys earn less than corporate lawyers, but janitors at the district attorney’s office may earn more than janitors at a corporate law office—provided the government hasn’t outsourced its facilities staff to the same private company the law office uses, which it may have, since governments have been targeting low-skilled workers for outsourcing precisely because that’s how they can save money.”
    In other words, it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, the benefits and pension formulas in many cases should be adjusted. You do not need to break a union to do this when you have the power to lay off workers.
    The counterargument is that unions vote for politicians who won’t do any such thing, but this article suggests that might happen anyway:
    “civil servants would constitute a powerful bloc able to protect their wages even without unions.”
    Moreover, it raises another interesting point:
    “Through what mechanism are civil servants supposed to bargain for wage increases if they don’t have unions? Who’s supposed to do the bargaining?”

  2. I’m rather familiar with the terms of public employment. If folks think the pay and working conditions are inadequate, well, why are most public sector job posts inudated with applicants? Why do governments need to bribe folks to retire. This is indicia of a above-market compensation level.
    As for the loss of influence, in CT I can assure you even if unorganized 80,000 state & university workers would be a voting bloc politicians would fear to offend.

  3. “If folks think the pay and working conditions are inadequate, well, why are most public sector job posts inundated with applicants?”
    For higher educated workers, a pension in the long-term is to compensate for lower wages in the short-term, and if not lower wages, at least foregoing the opportunity to make significantly higher wages in the private sector, through, for example, bonuses, stock compensation, etc. The highest skilled workers, for example, aren’t running to the public sector when the economy is booming. This is especially true for lawyers.
    For lower-skilled workers, public employment, no doubt, is a sweet deal.
    And you are definitely right about CT.

  4. Exactly how much more of a fraud was Taylor than Carson, and how does the Barone article establish the fact? That Taylor ignored some classes of worker (“indirect” labor) in his studied then accounted for them with “fudge factors” up to 40% — well modern IEs would consider that primitive. But how fraud?

  5. It’s easy to cherry pick when you only mention the “wrong” examples (although I probably disagree with you about Kinsey, but so what?)
    Other early scientists who were proved right (so you can’t list them, but I can):
    Darwin. This one is a gimme. No, we can’t debate it. I don’t believe we came from incestuous relations from Eve with her sons. Sorry.
    Freud. Funny because so many of his theories were wrong, based on just a few patients, but he DID invent a new branch of medicine.
    Galileo. All he wanted to do was explain the universe, and found the proof. But I feel better. The church did pardon him couple of years ago.
    Bobby Henderson. My personal hero. If you haven’t read the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, well, it’s truly brilliant. Uh, divinely inspired I might add.
    FWIW I agree about Rachel Carson. Funny though. Her work was really poor science. But it, more than anything else, really did lead to cleaner water for us to drink, which is really important. Also more mosquitoes and diseases (ahh, the good old DDT days), but then, all the universe is a trade off. Think of it as evolution in action. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  6. My problem with Barone’s article is that there are many reasons to form a union, like them or not. Just because teachers happen to borrow the UAW union model (a fact I’m assuming is true) doesn’t mean that differences between working conditions in the auto industry and teaching is any reason not to have a union. Given the degree to which teachers are being blamed for student performance that is mainly completely out of their control, they have some good reasons to have a union.
    This is not to say that unions should get everything for which they ask, and it’s incredibly naive to think that unions are always a force for good. I’ve never been a fan of last-in, first-out or bumping rules. I’m not impressed when unions ask for and get ridiculous workplace concessions, but as silly as some of those demands are, I tend to blame those who actually agree to those demands.

  7. Shorter Tea Party (A.K.A. GOP): No fair. Public sector union workers should be as under-compensated for their work as us private sector employees.

  8. Shorter “reality-based community”. : The public sector should pay the staff whatever it likes even if the private sector economy that pays for it has collapsed and can’t pay the bills for it any longer.
    How things work out for Greece trying this?

  9. Ironman,
    Check out the private sector rates of corporate profit, worker efficiency gains, and wages over the past 30 years. Don’t blame public sector unions just because they haven’t been shafted as badly regarding compensation.
    As for the private sector not being able to pay the bills any longer, allow me to point out the obvious: the rich stopped paying their fair share long before the recent economic collapse.

  10. I have no problem with public sector compensation being adjusted downward, particularly retirement benefits, and I very am glad I’m non-union, but some of the numbers coming from the right about public vs. private sector wages are misleading to the point of being intellectually dishonest. You can’t just compare private vs. public without adjusting for education levels. The numbers aren’t nearly as bad as the rhetoric would suggest. Again, your best workers aren’t running to the public sector when the economy is booming.
    Also, most states are struggling with much older union contracts that are no longer in force. These gave ridiculous levels of retirement benefits at a time when health care costs were nowhere near as steep as they are now.

  11. I’d agree that public/private comparisons need to consider the different occupations, as well as including benefits with wages, since public employees generally get more of their comp in the form of benefits.
    I don’t think public-sector lawyers should have their pay cut, since in general they are paid vastly less than their private-sector counterparts. In contrast to teachers or low-skill employees.

  12. “I don’t think public-sector lawyers should have their pay cut, since in general they are paid vastly less than their private-sector counterparts.”
    I like the way you think! Actually, because I’m non-union, my salary has been frozen the past couple of years and I have to pay more for benefits/retirement for the next few years. I’m not complaining, and neither should anyone else in the public sector. I really don’t have a problem with it.
    As for teachers, they go to college and earn their master’s degree. That’s advanced training and advanced debt. True, they don’t work during the summer, but those who think they don’t work overtime in the school year are kidding themselves.
    As for their compensation, I saw the Wisconsin numbers – their average base pay was $48k, not including benefits. I don’t have a problem with that average, though it should be capped at some point at the high end. They do have to pay off that debt, after all. Their other retirement and health benefits obviously should be adjusted along with everyone else’s in the public sector. Teachers are really the wrong target.
    As for other lower-skill occupations, states should be contracting out whenever possible.

  13. By way of real-world comparison, I have three sons who’ve graduated over the years, each at the top of his class. That’s one graphic designer, an industrial designer and a mechanical engineer.
    The latter case is something of an anomaly because of the recent deep recession, but in each case the individual starting salary was lower than that of our local school system for people with a BS Educ, an easier degree. And for forty-hour, 260-day jobs, BTW. Benefits also favor the school employees. Further, the local schools are well below the median in compensation for Ohio.
    As if that weren’t enough, each was laid off recently–one due to a plant closing–while the school employees enjoyed steady work and raises.
    The story has a happy ending (so far) because each has done well as a consultant. But even there we can compare benefits and job security to the detriment of workers in private industry.

  14. Dai,
    Sorry to hear about the lay-offs, that’s tough luck, but that kind of anecdotal evidence says more about the private sector in Ohio than it does about teachers’ salaries being too high. I looked up the average wages for teacher’s salaries in Ohio at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The tenth percentile wage in 2009 was $30,160 – an entry level job is going to be even less than that, probably in the mid-$20k range. I’m not sure why that would upset anyone. It’s no windfall.
    Again, you can make a strong case for capping the upper end of the teacher’s salaries. The 90% percentile for Ohio is $74,860, but keep in mind those teachers will have master’s degrees and many years of experience.

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