Citizen Jane: What is your labor worth?

Imagine, if when you signed on as an employee, you had a negotiation with your employer about wages. Not just incremental adjustments to what the employee is offering, but a blank slate, square-one discussion. While some higher-paid jobs regularly include this kind of bargaining, imagine if it applied to all jobs—librarians, fast food workers, receptionists and retail workers. You would have to go into a job interview having a good as¬sessment of your skills, a fair knowledge of that industry and how much it generally grosses annually (i.e. what it could rea¬sonably afford to pay) and how much you need in order to have a decent living. In this formula, you would have to be proprietary about what you have to offer and educated about what you could expect.Your wage negotiation with your potential employer would be balanced by the market, or in other words, how much the employer can spend on inputs like labor and materials and still make a profit.However, Washington State has not only made it impossible for this scenario to take place, it has been avid in making sure it defines what a man’s work is worth. The imposition of minimum wage removes the entry-level worker’s ability to bargain over pay and the “prevailing wage” requirement means government projects must pay what the state determines is an overall average wage, despite local factors.More interestingly, the Washington State Legislature has taken great pains to remove the individual ownership of work and defend only the rights of people to bargain over wages and benefits as a group. To exacerbate the point, it has also defended the right of public employees to unionize and bargain for wages, even though there is no market control on the discussion. When employees of a private company unionize, there is a balancing factor created by the larger market. While employees may want to be paid $30 an hour, for instance, an employer can only consider that an option if he is receiving a high return on the product the employee is helping to produce. Overhead, input costs and profit margin are all indisputable figures for the employer in the discussion. The employee can demand much of the employer, but if they push too far, they will put the company out of business and themselves out a of job.It is not the same in the public sector, where state agencies, schools, state and county government employees can make unreasonable demands with the assurance they will not put the government out of business. Because instead of closing their doors, the elected officials have a duty to provide basic services to the public who not only fund, but need, services like roads and law enforcement. There is no factor of sanity in public employment and that’s why allowing unions for public sector employees should be banned. When they demand more the person ultimately issuing the paycheck, the taxpayer, has a limited ability to say no.While unions had their place during the industrialization of this country to create a fair working environment for employees, the incursion of unions into the public sector is both egregious and problematic, as we are seeing today.This bankrupting of the government system by public employees has been given national attention in the state of Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker created a budget bill last year that limited public employee unions from making certain demands regarding pensions and healthcare. It also limited pay raises to inflation and eliminated the automatic collection of dues by the state. Though widely controversial, the measure was upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court this summer and will go into effect. We need a Wisconsin-type measure in Washington to help combat our own economic woes regarding unions. While unions at the state level can be a comprehensive topic, we see nearly as much complexity in the Stevens County Courthouse. Nearly every employee in the Stevens County Courthouse belongs to a union, including the sheriff and jail (44 employees) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees (54 employees). These groups regularly ask for pay increases, increased health benefits and other perks. They also regularly stymie efforts to create reduced budgets at the county level and create an unnecessary blockade to implementing common sense measures.However, since unions gained power in Washington State in the early 1900s, the union presence has made an impact both on the economy and the law. It is estimated by the Washington State Labor Council that one out of every five workers in Washington belongs to a union, making it the sixth in the nation for union density.The “right to unionize” has even reached comical levels as laws have been enacted to affirm the rights of symphonies to bargain with their employer as a group.RCW 49.38.010 says no one shall “interfere with, restrain, coerce, or discriminate against any symphony musician or group of symphony musicians in the free exercise of their right to organize.” If we really wanted to make sure every person could assert to be paid what they are worth, we would not only ban public employee unions, but we would also do away with the minimum wage, which creates a fair and open discussion that does not limit the shoe sales clerk or the stocker at the grocery store to being told “you are only worth this much.”It is a great irony that we have encoded in state law that employees have the right to bargain with an employer over pay and benefits, but at the same time remind the entry-level worker they are only worth a certain amount.If the idea is to allow all people to bargain for a wage that satisfies them, it should apply to all level of workers, from the dishwasher at a restaurant to the lawyer working for a client. We need to allow people to be assertive and competitive in the workplace by allowing employees to help set the pace for the work world, not by imposing arbitrary laws or allowing public employee unions to bankrupt taxpayers. It’s time to get back to hard work, common sense and ownership over our efforts if we want to see each worker getting paid a rate that is fair and suited to their abilities and work ethic.