Governor Scott Walker has already achieved something significant in Wisconsin—by focusing on both the level of government-worker benefits and their power to bargain collectively for those benefits, he has brought union officials and (apparently) many public employees in his state to say that they would accept benefit cuts. They are taking their stand, instead, on the power to bargain collectively for future benefits (rather than only for wages). This, union officials (as well as many observers around the country, including President Obama) insist is a basic right, and the effort to curtail it is (in Obama’s words) “an assault on unions” that would leave workers unprotected. And anyway, they argue, collective-bargaining rights have nothing to do with the problems confronting Wisconsin and other states.
Put simply, public employees (even when they are not organized, let alone able to bargain collectively) have some major advantages over their private-sector counterparts. They are guarded by generous civil-service protections—the most significant of which predate public-sector unionism, having been put in place, ironically, to combat the inclination of urban political machines to use the public sector as a powerbase. And most government employees work in non-competitive fields where their employer has a monopoly, so their jobs are not threatened by competitors, and are not dependent on their ability to work efficiently and so keep their employer competitive.
When they organize—merely as an interest group, quite apart from formal collective bargaining—they have several more immense advantages. By leveraging their numbers and resources, their organizations can become major players in politics. At election time, public employees can therefore play a large role in choosing their own employers or bosses (by getting certain people elected and not others), which of course no private-sector union can do. At all levels of government today, public-worker unions are among the biggest political donors. Between elections, they can use that political power to influence those elected officials and the political process more generally to improve their pay, benefits, or conditions, and also to increase demand for their services through legislation that increases the size or role of government (as the California prison guards union was instrumental in passing the state’s three-strikes law, for instance) or that prevents competition (as the teachers’ unions do in opposing school-choice programs). In all these ways, public workers have enormous powers that private workers could not dream of, and all without actual formal collective bargaining.
When you add collective bargaining to that mix, the unions gain the power to make in private negotiations decisions that should be made in public deliberations—decisions about public priorities and public budgets. And they turn public employees into a formal procedural adversary of the public they serve. This presents some serious problems to our democratic system, problems that traditionally kept even the biggest advocates of unionism from supporting collective bargaining with the government. This is why Franklin Roosevelt said that “collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” It is why George Meany (the first president of the AFL-CIO) said it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
Public employees in many states (and to a limited extent also at the federal level) are nonetheless permitted to bargain collectively for precisely the reasons above: They gained that permission as their unions gained political power over the years. And they have often used their collective bargaining powers to increase not only their members’ pay (an increase which shows up rather directly and immediately in public budgets) but also their benefits, and especially retirement benefits (which often do not show up on the books for years and so are easier to get from cash-strapped public officials). As DiSalvo notes in his essay:
Since 2002, for every $1-an-hour pay increase, public employees have gotten $1.17 in new benefits; private-sector workers, meanwhile, have received just 58 cents in added benefits. Of special interest to the unions has been health care: Across the nation, 86% of state- and local-government workers have access to employer-provided health insurance, while only 45% of private-sector workers do. In many cases, these plans involve meager contributions from employees, or none at all — in New Jersey, for instance, 88% of public-school teachers pay nothing toward their insurance premiums.
And many of these benefits continue to be provided to retired employees, not only current ones. This is why many governors eager to get their finances under control have had to start by confronting public employees, and it is why Wisconsin’s governor has targeted his efforts on one important cause of the problem—collective bargaining for benefits. Walker would not even strip state employees of the power to bargain collectively for wages, only for benefits which are easier to hide from the public. And he would not, of course, strip them of their other great advantages over private-sector workers, which are functions of their rights as citizens who also happen to be employed by the government they elect, and so could not be taken from them.
The notion that this involves an assault on some inalienable right to collective bargaining with the public is preposterous. Such collective bargaining is a privilege public workers have obtained by exercising their political muscle, and state officials around the country are right to try to roll it back to the extent they can.
In the long run, the real solution to the growing conflict between public employees and the public they work for is to limit the government’s size and reach and to contract out more of its remaining functions to the private sector, so as not only to increase the government’s efficiency but also to minimize the conflict between its obligations to the people it serves and its obligations to the people it employs. But in the meantime, it is also necessary and appropriate to pare back some of the enormous power built up by public workers over the past few decades.