The Blue Flu

Last week, fourteen public employees of the New Jersey Senior Citizen Area Transportation service staged a “sick-out” to attend a union rally.  Yesterday, Governor Chris Christie declared that “people who call in sick better be sick.” 

You know what?  Those guys weren’t sick, although some of the 174 disabled adults who depend on their service are.  Accordingly, three of the public employees have been suspended.

Strikes and work stoppages are the ultimate negotiating tool of unions.  The very concept of a union is the implied threat that all of its members must be satisfied by the results of collective bargaining, or all of them will walk away. 

Every employee can do this to some degree.  There’s nothing stopping you from marching into your boss’ office right now and demanding better benefits, or a pay increase, or else you’re history.  You could also try staging a strike, or just calling in sick a lot, until your boss gets the message.

Of course, your boss might decide to respond by dismissing you.  You could return from your bout with the “blue flu” to find someone else sitting at your desk.  Your threat to quit, unless your demands are met, could be answered with a handshake and a mournful farewell.  Your boss might get angry at your presumption, or feel personally hurt that your cordial working relationship has descended to ugly threats.

Most individual workers would say that the balance of power in this relationship lies with the employer.  Employment is a voluntary arrangement for mutual advantage.  The employer counts many such relationships among his assets, while the employee has just one.  Generally speaking, the conclusion of your business with the people who sign your paychecks will hurt you more than it hurts them.  Even if you really are “indispensible,” there will come a point at which you’re just not worth the aggravation, if you keep threatening to quit or reduce your output.

A union greatly alters this balance of power, because it can threaten to remove many people from the workforce at once.  That’s obviously much more damaging to the employer than losing one person.  In a sense, the “flowchart” of the employment relationship has changed.  The business now has one relationship with the union, and the union has links to the various employees.  The threat of a strike becomes much more impersonal, rather than feeling like a stinging insult from one worker to his boss.  If there’s a work stoppage, it will be a lot of people acting at once, and any one of them could tell an unhappy manager that it’s not his idea – he’s just doing what the union tells him to.

The increased power of a strike or sick-out in union hands makes the tactic more likely to be employed, and more likely to succeed.  There are still two ways it can fail: the employer can decide to replace all of the striking union employees, or individual workers could break with the union and return to their jobs.

Both of these possibilities can only be foreclosed with coercive government power.  Employers can be forced to do business with the union, and employees can be told union membership is mandatory to find work in their chosen field.  You will find both of these conditions in play, anywhere a public employee union is bankrupting a state.  It’s far more difficult to impose these conditions in the private sector, which is one reason unions claim a much smaller percentage of the private workforce.  In fact, when government power is unavailable to impose these restrictions and give unions monopolistic control over the labor supply, they have been known to resort to… shall we say, extra-governmental means to create the necessary power.

A private company would quickly lose business to competitors, if rocked by repeated epidemics of the “blue flu.”  There would be no shortage of competitive workers eager to take the seats vacated by the sick-out, winning them with assurances to occupy those positions more responsibly.  In fact, some degree of legal power would probably be deployed to prevent such behavior, in the form of contracts and bonding.  In the public sector, by contrast, legal power is used to enable union control of the workforce, and make it possible to conduct work stoppages in some rather sensitive positions.

It probably wouldn’t occur to a large portion of the staff at a private company which caters to elderly and disabled people to abandon their clients and attend a rally.  You need public-sector unions for that.