Unions Jacked

Is collective bargaining a right or isn't it?

The state of Wisconsin is said to have a large budget deficit, which makes it no different from the federal government, most other states, and probably most of the tax-supported municipalities in the United States. What makes Wisconsin’s case different is that Republican Governor Scott Walker—along with a few other Republican governors—is trying to cut costs by redefining the relationship between the state and public-sector unions. This has precipitated a larger national discussion about principles, a discussion that has focused on one question: Are public-sector workers and their unions different from private-sector workers and their unions?

Conservatives argue that the public sector is different from the private sector because it is tax-supported. Therefore, when public-sector unions negotiate wages and job conditions, they are negotiating not with business owners but, in effect, with the other taxpayers in the community. Where they exist, public-sector unions include most or all public workers, which means they have a kind of monopoly power over the services they provide. This, it is argued, gives them an unfair advantage when negotiating with the government. Public-sector unions also use money collected from their members to support political candidates, who, if elected, will negotiate with those same unions over compensation that is paid for, ultimately, by taxpayers. The larger that compensation, the more the union members can afford to spend on sympathetic political candidates. Hence, critics say, public-sector unions become a vehicle for passing tax dollars to specific candidates. Finally, conservatives add, public-sector workers are called “public servants” for a reason. They are expected to serve the public interest, not their own.

Some taxpayers think of themselves as the employers of public-sector workers; and, like any other business owner, they want more for less, especially when times are tough. (In boom times, no one seemed to worry much about teachers’ pensions.) Some taxpayers are particularly galled when they discover that their public-sector “employees” have better salaries and benefits than they do. These things all seem to make the public sector a special case. But is it?

States must compete with private-sector employers for the same workers; there are not two separate labor markets. If we do not pay public-school teachers enough, they can go to work for private schools or do something else for a living. But if there is no difference in the demand for labor between the public-sector and the private-sector, why shouldn’t those who go to work for the public sector have the same right to organize that private-sector workers have? If any worker has this right, all should have it. And if not all have it, then it isn’t really a right at all, but a privilege.

These days, public-sector unions are very effective compared to private-sector unions. A mass autoworker strike is at most a small inconvenience for most of us. If the police and firemen walk out, that’s a different matter. And so, conservatives argue, since these indispensable public workers don’t have the right to strike, how can they have a right to collective bargaining? But without such a right they have no way to prevent being taken advantage of by the people to whom they are supposedly indispensable. If some public-sector workers appear to have excellent benefits, you can bet they had to organize to get them in the first place. Once they lose their right to collective bargaining, those benefits won’t last long.

And what about the argument that, because taxes pay for public-sector salaries, public-sector unions shouldn’t be allowed to spend money collected from union members on political campaigns? One’s response to this argument will depend on whether one thinks the dollars one spends on taxes are different from the dollars one spends on groceries, for example. In both cases, we are talking about a payment for services. And in both cases, some of the money is going to leak back into politics, to support politicians not every customer or taxpayer will approve of. That’s the nature of our money-fueled political system. A union spending money to support a political party is not fundamentally different from a corporation doing so.

We return, then, to the idea of taxpayers as the employers of public-sector employees who belong to unions, which are organized to bargain with state governments. Do we like it when these unions bargain with our elected officials the way (some) private-sector workers bargain with corporate management? Maybe not. But that’s the way rights are; either workers—all workers—have them, or they don’t. If we don’t think public-sector workers should have them, then we have no good reason to think private-sector workers should have them. After all, if we’re worried about keeping our taxes down, we’re also worried about keeping down the price we pay for anything corporations produce. And if the current economic crisis allows us to dissolve union contracts to keep state governments from going broke, why doesn’t the same crisis allow us to dissolve mortgage contracts for homeowners who risk going broke?

There is no doubt that Wisconsin faces a fiscal crisis. And there is also no doubt that if the state government were able to assert unilateral control over wages and working conditions, then wages would fall and conditions would deteriorate. Otherwise, why would the states bother trying to assert such control? But the governor of Wisconsin isn’t just looking for ways to avert a fiscal crisis; he’s trying to redefine labor rights. The Republicans are free to adopt that mission, which is consistent with their perennial agenda of shrinking the public sector. But they shouldn’t pretend it has anything to do with the state budget deficits.  

Related: State of the Unions, by the Editors
Power Play, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

From dotCommonweal: Smearing Teachers Unions, by Paul Moses

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

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