I’ve got to weigh in against Heartland’s Marc Oestreich in his post about public sector unions. (This is a free-wheeling libertarian think tank. We’re bound to disagree.) In the interest of full disclosure, let me start with admitting my rational bias against unions, both public and private.
I was around 6 or 8 when I asked my dad what a “union” was. He proceeded to tell me about how he was a member of the bricklayers union when he first came over from Germany in the 50s. He told me about how he was pulled aside by a union rep, and told not to lay so many bricks, because it might lead to the management asking that every one up their level of work.
Now, I don’t know how much that story might be embellished, but I think all of us in public policy — left or right — know that this anecdote is utterly believable. As an youngster, I was flabbergasted. “People should be paid by the brick, ” I said.
Frankly, had I been raised in a pro-union household, where a more collectivist-minded person raised me to think that we owed “the union” our very livelihood because of paid vacations, 8-hour work days, and the underpinning the whole of western civilization, then I might have a different perspective. But I wasn’t, thankfully.
The fact is that unions exist to (a) withhold labor from the market, for the purposes of (b) extracting the least amount of labor for the most amount of money/benefits. They are essentially monopolists who must first use government to restrict the supply of labor in their favor, so that they can command a higher than market price from the employer.
If you want to challenge the union monopoly on labor, you will probably feel the full wrath of the union fist. You are a scab, deserving to have your tires slashed, your family threatened — or, if you are employer using scab labor — your project sabotaged or destroyed. All because an individual may be willing to work for a few less dollars or a few more hours, contracting with a business wanting to pay as little as possible for the most amount of work.
So just who is interfering with the market here, Marc?[Note: To be sure, business interests, early in the industrial revolution, were far more able to "purchase" political protection from wrong doing, poor working conditions, and other bad or immoral acts. Labor was easily replaced, and cost of retaining good workers was much higher than simply hiring new ones. To Maureen's and Marc's point, no one doubts that unionism was a "market" (in a social sense) reaction to unequal economic power.]
With that preamble in mind, let me address Marc’s points about unions.
Marc says he “never advocates government interference in the market.” Sadly, that is what unions, both public and private, do. Let us use his coffee shop example. Marc posits that Suzie can “simply deny the requests of this newly formed union.” Perhaps in a right-to-work state, but not in a union state. From WikiPedia…
Prior to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by Congress over President Harry S Truman‘s veto in 1947, unions and employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act could lawfully agree to a closed shop, in which employees at unionized workplaces are required to be members of the union as a condition of employment. Under the law in effect before the Taft-Hartley amendments, an employee who ceased being a member of the union for whatever reason, from failure to pay dues to expulsion from the union as an internal disciplinary punishment, could also be fired even if the employee did not violate any of the employer’s rules.
Read that section, folks, and tell me who is going to the government to “interfere with contracts.”
If the 6 barristas talk Suzie into contracting with their collective, that may be an example of “freedom of contract,” but only if they don’t have a NLRB putting their finger on the scales on the side of the union.
Right-to -Work Laws
Is a “right to work” law an example of government interference in private contract law? I suppose it could be viewed that way, but only to correct a more egregious (IMO) earlier infringement. Again, the first step required for “unionism” to work is to establish a government created and protected monopoly of labor for that workforce.
Legislature’s power over government spending
We shouldn’t let our zeal in debating unionism allow us to forget the fact that governments have every constitutional right to dictate the spending of their budgets. Marc opines that it is somehow wrong to control spending through prohibiting negotiations over benefits, but not compensation. This is basically a non-issue.
Government has the right ( the responsibility, actually) to control and balance its budget. In the case of Wisconsin, the employer is merely saying “here is what we are prepared to negotiate.” With decades of politicians purchased with union dues extracted through a legislated monopoly on labor, it is fair to say that the taxpayers never even had a representative on their side of the table. With Scott Walker, they do. Walker is merely changing the rules of the negotiation.[Note: If I had unlimited dollars to put toward public interest lawsuits, I'd sue to void every public workers "contract right" to unsustainable pension perks and abuses, using the theory that taxpayers were owed a fiduciary duty by their elected officials, and the entire pension run up of the 90s and 2000s be "clawed-back" due to those fraudulent and corrupt politicians negotiating in a state of conflict-of-interest. ]
The right to bargain individually
I’m a scab. I’m proud of it. If I could open a school next to some failing public dropout factory, and drain it of students (victims), I’d do so in a second.
As a conservative who leans libertarian on many issues, I demand the right to “bargain individually.” We should be able to walk into any business, and say, “I can do that job better and for less money than Joe Union. As a business, you have a fiduciary obligation to your stockholders to try me out to see if I can cut it.”
Any law preventing me and that business from entering a contract is “government intervention in the marketplace,” and should be repealed. If that business says, “no, we have freely entered into an agreement with Joe’s union,” then there isn’t much I can do.
As you may have surmised, I don’t even like private unions. I concede that they came about for a reason, and that they grew because they balanced a power equation against business collectives.
[Note: One of my listeners called my old radio show and said "Corporations are "unions" for rich people." I have to put a chapter in some book on that concept.]
I view private unions as anachronisms that are dying on the vine, as every worker now has access to individual contract rights, should they shed their dogma and bargain individually with an employer.
Public unions don’t even deserve the right to die on the vine. They deserve the death penalty. Abolish collective bargaining rights outright, and simply end the practice of allowing government-protected monopolists from bargaining against the interests of the taxpayer. Seize all the assets (Their flush captive insurance companies come to mind) of public unions and apply them to pension shortfalls. Done.
One only need the read this post to understand why. Public unionism is an anathema to good government, limited government, and honest government. Marc can theorize endlessly over the number of potentially honest workers, potentially bargaining in good faith for potentially market wages. That’s fine as an academic exercise of the public policy intellectual.
On the ground, in the real world, public unions have bankrupted every state they’ve had the power to. They’ve purchased politicians, school codes, civil service laws, and used their financial clout to metastasize into every political arena they can, all for the purpose of the financial gain of their members, all at the expense of the taxpayer.
Write a transparent and fair civil service code. Protect worker rights through application of fairness and due process, and allow government workers a mix of options to manage their compensation decisions. Then abolish public unions – forever.