Public sector unions always a bad idea

"In Wisconsin, a state usually known for its modest residents and voluminous cheese production, an altogether different story has been unfolding for two weeks now.

"Spirited screams of "Shame, shame, shame, shame," have echoed from the state assembly chamber. Protesters invaded the floor of the assembly to hurl the epitaph violently, and loudly, at Republican lawmakers. Where, you might ask, is all the rhetoric about civility in political discourse—so flush mere weeks ago? Gone; it seems to have fled Madison entirely, just like 14 Democratic members of Wisconsin’s state senate.

"But what, pray tell, is all this bluster about? It is in response to a bill pushed by Governor Scott Walker that would strip the public employee union in Wisconsin of their collective bargaining rights in order to close a multi-million dollar budget gap. The kerfuffle in the legislature even led to a pseudo-strike by the teachers’ union, which effectively had schools canceled when its members called in sick for two days straight last month. Clearly, these are people who take their union rights seriously.

"It was Oliver Wendell Holmes, the preeminent jurist and Supreme Court justice, who wrote, "One of the eternal conflicts out of which life is made up is that between the efforts of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible returns. Combination on the one side is patent and powerful. Combination on the other is the necessary and desirable counterpart, if the battle is to be carried on in a fair and equal way."

"When he wrote that in 1896 it was entirely true. While employers then formed trusts, monopolized industries and engaged in manifestly unfair work practices, their workers were denied the right to strike, to picket or to bargain collectively. The 20th century showed how prescient Holmes’ complaint was. After the National Labor Relations Act legalized strikes and forced employers to recognize and bargain with unions, the momentum went to labor. And things did get better. Unsafe conditions were alleviated, the workweek and workday shortened and wages rose. These are the benefits of private-sector unions; without them, those historic accomplishments, the benefits of which accrue to us today, would have been delayed or, worse yet, they may never even have happened.

"But today Holmes’ words are less resonant. State offices are not sweatshops and those who toil there make a living wage. Indeed, the cost of labor for the state produces a large share of its budget expense, and that budget is severely unbalanced at the moment. The saving from Walker’s union bill would not only help fill the budget gap, but estimates show it reducing state expenses far into the future—something taxpayers should applaud.

"The fact is that public-sector workers are specifically excluded from the historic National Labor Relations Act. They are simply not permitted the same protections under the law as their privately employed counterparts—that is, the right to bargain collectively and have the state recognize their union. No provision has forced the state to grant the workers these rights for all these years, but Wisconsin has been generous enough to do so. Now it has become too expensive. Public workers who claim to have a right to collective bargaining are wrong. This bargaining has been a privilege, and an ill-used one at that.

"Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no boogeyman to unions, did not support giving workers the kind of rights they are now demanding in Wisconsin.

""Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the government…. The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," said Roosevelt in 1937. "A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable." This from a man was denoted as a liberal lion.

"Data now supports what Roosevelt knew then: public sector unions are uniquely perilous because of the special rules that apply when the politician is your boss and the taxpayer your financier. Studies show that public employees control an outsized share of votes in elections ranging from school board members to state officials. The public workers also have an inherent incentive to show up and vote, and they also encourage friends and spouses—this drowns out the silent majority, who would otherwise oppose the union candidates.

"Of course politicians swept into office by union graces will grant generous contracts. Unions are not stupid; so they make contributions to candidates—big ones too, often reached by bundling the individual donations of its members as well as a pretty penny, which comes straight from union coffers. Imagine the perversities of incentive and the wishful accounting a supervisor could be contorted into if his or her job security depended on you loving your benefits. Now imagine how much worse it would be if you were one of his or her main contributors. That is the situation in which state legislators find themselves with public employee unions and it is a relationship a bit too cozy for taxpayers, who foot the bill for the statehouse is spending.