The teachers union protest in Wisconsin isn’t just a battle over employee benefits. It is an important ideological fight between public unions and taxpayers that forces elected officials to decide whom they side with.
Gov. Scott Walker is seeking to make long-term structural changes in the union-government relationship by limiting the collective bargaining rights of the teachers and other public employees (although not firefighters and police). Lawmakers in several other states are considering similar legislation.
This strikes at the heart of public union power — and well it should.
Collective bargaining is supposed to offset an imbalance of power between employees and management. In the private sector, there is an inherent adversarial relationship between the two sides in labor negotiations. Each knows that if the company gives too much away and fails to make a profit, it will be forced to shut its doors and everyone loses.
The nature of public unions is different. Government employees are negotiating across the table from government representatives, who often are those whom the union worked hard to elect. The balance of power shrinks dramatically and the relationship is not nearly as adversarial. It is government negotiating with itself.
And because it is other people’s money at stake — the taxpayers’ — there is a lot less concern for the bottom line.
As private-sector union membership has declined significantly over the last 50 years, public employee unions have gained. Prior to the 1960s, unions represented less than 15 percent of the government workforce. Today, 36 percent of public-sector workers (7.6 million) belong to a union, compared to 7 percent for the private sector (7.1 million workers).
Thirty-eight states have collective bargaining for all or some state and local workers (12 states have no collective bargaining in the public sector). The states with collective bargaining have much higher union membership than the states that don’t.
Not surprisingly, unionized government workers tend to have higher compensation packages than their non-union counterparts. That’s important because employee compensation constitutes about half of state and local government spending.
Thus you have a situation where government employees help elect legislators who are receptive to giving them the pay and benefits they seek, knowing that a chunk of that money will find its way back into their campaign coffers next election cycle.
It’s a self-perpetuating system in which taxpayer interests are subjugated to union and political interests. Growing government to ever-more expensive levels means more workers are hired, union membership rises (as do revenues from dues) and politicians reap the rewards. That puts more pressure on the private sector to feed the beast.
Exactly who is serving whom?
Even a staunch champion of private unions such as President Franklin Roosevelt opposed unionizing government. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," he wrote in 1937. He understood there is a fundamental difference between the public and private spheres that does not translate in labor issues.
Limiting collective bargaining, as Wisconsin’s governor and other states have proposed, will help break that cycle and restore more balance between taxpayers and government.