Sunday, February 20, 2011

Collective Bargaining Rights for State Workers in Wisconsin

The struggle going on in Wisconsin is the big news these days. Here's what I can't understand about the Republican position in this fight:

Collective bargaining is simply the ability of workers to come together to try to negotiate benefits, wages, and other employment conditions with their employers. From my perspective, this is simply a matter of freedom, and it is something that should be promoted and protected by government, not squelched by government.

I also don't understand the argument that somehow people should forfeit their freedoms when their employer is the government (and by extension, "the people"). When people who work for the state have to forfeit their freedom precisely because they are working for state, then that strikes me as walking a bit on the totalitarian line.

Let me try to break this down a bit and understand it better. What is at issue here is the right to collective bargain, not necessarily an entitlement to a particular outcome of the collective bargaining process. Because the legislation seeks to prevent what I think is a right to free association and to use that free association to negotiate labor conditions, without any guarantee as to what the outcome of that negotiation will be, I don't understand at all why Republicans would be opposed to this. It seems as if it is nothing more than antipathy to the whole idea of unions and the rights of labor, in principle, to band together to bargain for benefits.

The argument that the restriction of such freedom is necessary in a difficult financial crisis also seems bogus to me. For one, the financial crisis is partly one of the current Republican governor's own making. He cut taxes and then used the consequences of the loss of revenues generated by his tax cuts to fabricate a budget crisis to bust the union. Secondly, and more importantly, I thought Republicans believed that restrictions of such freedoms are prima facie wrong.

If someone can explain to me why collective bargaining is, in and of itself, a behavior that requires state repression, I'm all ears.

1 comment:

eric said...

I tend to agree that collective bargaining is a basic tenet of free speech, but I also see where it can become something else when enacted in the public sector.

The problems I see are threefold:

1) Local control - In many cases, especially with teachers unions, bargaining takes place at the federal or state level and then local school districts are forced to abide by labor edicts passed down to them from 'on high', when they never had a seat at the table. Many are the local school districts that long to get rid of bad teachers but are hamstrung by termination procedures negotiated by the union at the state level that take YEARS to enact.

2) Markets: Ultimately, collective bargaining in the private sector only works because you have a market system that provides feedback on the real value of workers. If union workers negotiate a package for themselves that exceeds their value to the marketplace, the company they work for will go out of business, or the industry they work for will go into decline. This dynamic does not exist in the public sector, or to the extent that it does exist, it is perverted and distorted by political phenomenon. Public sector union workers can be vastly overcompensated or undercompensated with very little effect on the market for their products (and almost no effect on the quality of their output...).

3) Politics - Ultimately, there is a big difference between the employer who is negotiating employment terms with an eye towards the continued success of his business and a politician who needs needs votes from the people he is negotiating with. When your employees are also your defatco customers, that changes the entire dynamic of negotiation.

So what the question really comes down to is this: are these differences significant enough that we should limit the rights of association and free speech for people wanting to join public sector unions? I can't really support that, but what I can support would have the same effect. Politicans shouldn't be forced to deal with them, and in some cases should be prevented from doing so (for the same reasons judges are prevented from hearing cases they have a vested interest in. Everybody has a right to speak, but nobody has a right to an audience.