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A More Just Union

For anyone who has been following the recent activities in Wisconsin, you have likely heard your fair share of over-emotionalized rhetoric and boisterous bloviating (via unbathed students with megaphones, no doubt).

But the most dizzying of the spin has been the notion that public workers are entitled to a “right to collective bargaining”—a claim made so frequently and with such conviction that one would assume the taxpayers were granted some bargaining powers of their own.

But alas, although politicians began to invent such rights in the 1950s, the merits of these unique privileges have been highly contested, even by the likes of pro-union leaders like FDR and George Meany.

Why then do we consider such “rights” to be integral to the American system? Why is this massive game now acceptable and even admirable when played out in front of the public it seeks to coerce?

These questions are best answered by examining the underlying attitudes and sentiments within the unions themselves, which provokes another set of questions.

Why is there such a strong and unified effort tolegitimize and organize manipulative collusion with government? Why would a group of people ever push so hard to retain economic advantages over their fellow citizens?

Let’s take a look at some of the options. Given the readiness and ease with which many teachers lied to their schools in order to ditch their classes, their actions don’t seem rooted in any particular love for students, or even “education.” Likewise, given their sheer anger and frustration with the voters who are standing behind Scott Walker, such a sentiment also doesn’t seem based in any degree of gratitude or respect for the parents who (involuntarily) pay them.

Instead, such a reaction seems to arise out of a deep-seated sense of entitlement—a particular frame of mind and spirit that isaccustomed to accommodation and shamelessly addicted to wielding exclusive monopolistic powers over the citizenry.

The public-sector unions are right about one thing. At a fundamental level, this isn’t about money. This is about social justice.

Framing my argument in terms of “social justice” will surely strike the pro-public-union crowd as odd. After all, they are the ones scolding the rich for “excess” and comparing Wisconsin teachers to third-world sweat-shop workers (need a laugh?). But when one begins to understand the unfair advantages that public-sector unions hold over the rest of the citizenry, such moping and mourning is quickly revealed to be the posturing Phariseesm that it is.

To explain the extent of these advantages, I turn to EPPC scholar Yuval Levin, whose recent post at National Review Online provides a clear and concise exposition of the unfair advantages that public-sector unions hold dear (Levin also references a more extensive article by Daniel DiSalvo, which I also urge you to read.)

As Levin notes, these are not the only folks with unfair advantages. They are simply privy to the largest arsenal of coercive tools.

To explain the build-up of such a supply, Levin provides a thorough examination of the various levels of public-sector manipulation, starting with the lesser advantages of non-union public employees, and moving on from there:

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.

Much of this is common knowledge. We all know that the mailman gig is more steady and less competitive than most.

But pair this insulation with “organization” and things get a bit more interesting.

As Levin continues:

When [public sector employees] 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…or that prevents competition (as the teachers’ unions do in oppo sing school-choice programs).

Levin’s final point, which leads back to my first, focuses on the next step in this development: when collective bargaining and the public sector collide.

Here’s where it gets nasty:

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.

What are we to make of this unique power that public-sector unions have wielded over the public at large? Are we to listen to their jeers and complaints that “big business” and moneyed interests are out to ruin their lives and rape them of their dignity? Are we really to view this enraged bloc of privileged workers as the helpless and abused victims they claim to be? Should we simply back down and continue ceding to this force in the name of status-quo comfort and stability, particularly when the private sector is rapidly adapting and stripping its extra weight with great pain and suffering?

Governor Walker claims that his actions are fundamentally about the budget (this seems reasonable), but based on the reactions from the unions (“It’s not about the money!”), it appears that the real gem they treasure is their coercive “right” to collectively bargain over the funds of the private citizens they are supposed to serve—a privilege of unfair and exploitative advantage.

Public-sector unions may think that parading a hollow right to specialized coercion is more dignified than complaining about lower salaries, but I find it to be a revelation of something far more sinister.

Listen up, public-sector unions: You are not the victims. You are the pampered and insulated “elite.” The longer you cling to the roots of your institutionalized privilege, the longer injustice will prevail.