Reeder: Unions negotiate with politics of envy

SPRINGFIELD – Occasionally, when I was growing up, my brother and I were allowed to split a bottle of pop.

I’d pour the soda into identical glasses while peering intently at each glass to make sure they were exactly at the same level. I couldn’t bear the thought that my brother, Danny, might get an ounce more than me.

It was silly, childish behavior. Unfortunately, I see a lot of adults behaving that way, too.

At age 24, I took a job at another newspaper. No sooner had I sat down at my desk on my first day on the job when another reporter sidled up to me and wanted to know how much an hour I was earning.

It wasn’t much. So I told him.

He huffed and puffed and stormed into the editor’s office. It turns out I was making $60 more per week than he was.

Later, I was chewed out by the city editor for stirring up trouble. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious way to start a new job.

In the workplace, the only paycheck I’ve ever concerned myself with is the one with my name on it. If you are happy with what you’re paid, why worry whether someone else is earning more? If you are unhappy with your pay, ask your boss what you can do to better your situation. If satisfaction isn’t reached, it’s time for you to look elsewhere.

A few years back, I wrote about the challenges of recruiting math and science teachers to work in public schools. They had skills that allowed them to be paid more in the private sector.

Union contracts barred school districts from paying folks with these skills more than someone with say a bachelor’s degree in English, history or physical education.

To do so wouldn’t be “fair.” Or so the argument goes, but it’s a silly argument.

Much like a child worrying about whether his brother is getting an ounce more of soda, unions stoke envy.

You’ll hear it when issues such as creating 401(k)-type retirement benefits are contemplated for new hires. Union leaders will squawk it’s not “fair” because workers with more seniority receive more generous pensions.

Isn’t whether it’s “fair” something for the workers taking the job to decide?

On a state level, you’ll hear unions and their legislative allies criticize salaries of senior advisers to the governor. They are quite well paid. Some are making $250,000 a year.

The union’s argument, however, doesn’t hold much water. None of those advisers belong to a union, and yet they were able to capture top salaries on their own.

If anything it’s a testament to a system that rewards merit rather than membership.

Perhaps that’s what unions fear.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at