The Agenda

An Earnest Attempt to Clarify the Debate on Collective Bargaining

I wrote a post earlier today that you might have stumbled on.

Ezra Klein writes:

Earlier today, I linked to Reihan Salam saying that Virginia is a state where the public employees can’t collectively bargain. He expands on the point at his blog and says the lesson of Virginia isn’t just that the public employees can’t collectively bargain but that they can’t collectively bargain and the state is really, really well run, or at least was under Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

I’m very confused by this last sentence. I had a very narrow objective.

Reihan doesn’t really bring any more evidence to bear on the question than that.

That’s correct — the post was reconstructing my tweet-length musings on the subject. 

As he sort of notes, the performance of various state governments is complicated, and it’d take a special kind of foolishness to try to lash it too tightly to collective bargaining arrangements.

I also think it would take a special kind of foolishness to assume that collective bargaining is the only way to protect the interests of workers, public or private, and that curbing collective bargaining rights represents an “assault” on public workers. 

Take a look at this map, which shows which states allow for collective bargaining and which states don’t. Now take a look at this map, which shows the Pew Center on the States’ grades for government performance. The three top-ranked states are Virginia, Utah and Washington. Virginia doesn’t allow collective bargaining for public employees, Utah allows it, and Washington enforces it.

The Utah case is somewhat more complicated, as you’ll see here [PDF].

Bargaining in Utah, a right-to-work state without a collective bargaining law, is somewhat unique. Thirty-nine states have public sector bargaining laws.  Nineteen states have right-to-work laws. Obviously, some right-to-work states have bargaining laws.   

The Park City case specifically states that boards of education have the authority to enter into and are bound by the terms of a collectively bargained agreement, subject to various limitations.  In Alpine School District v. Ward, the court held that it was the duty of the court, not the board of education, to interpret and apply the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Both the Constitution of Utah and state statute protect the right of public employees to organize.  However, nothing in Utah law requires public employers to bargain with their employees. Accordingly, public employees have no statutory right to compel their employers to bargain with them. Several local associations have successfully bargained a provision in a CBA that require the board to bargain in good faith with the association. [Emphasis added.]

As you can imagine, the fact that nothing in Utah law requires public employers to bargain with their employees shapes the broader environment — it helps restrain the demands that are made. One can imagine a constructive scenario in which workers receive representation, yet take a more collaborative rather than a confrontational posture.

I imagine that there are many arrangements that could work well. I see nothing wrong with an elected legislature trying to make a break with past practice. Drawing on the experience of other states is never going to be dispositive — much depends on institutional history, trust, the leadership of public employee unions as well as the quality of public sector management. 

Part of the confusion here could be that I don’t think that there are any easy or obvious answers. I just don’t think it’s obvious that rolling back collective bargaining is a bad idea. Moreover, I think that there is an intuitive case for giving local officials more flexibility in setting compensation schemes, which, as I’ve noted in another post, is a reason to be skeptical of lockstep compensation in any form.


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