Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Unions of Public Employees

Although I've never been a member of a labor union, I have always held such organizations in high esteem.  I believe that in a capitalist society there is no reliable countervailing power other than that provided by aggressive unions to the depredations of unchecked power of large businesses and corporations.  One can not trust government always to rein in corporate power because corporate power can effectively buy the government.  We see that happen often these days, no matter which party controls the Presidency.

Naturally, I've applied my support in concept for unions in the private (i.e., non-government) sector to uncritical support for unions of public employees.  I have dismissed critics of the power of public employee unions as being Republicans who hate all unions.  Lately, I've been having second thoughts about public employee unions.  Here's why:

In the case of unions of employees of private firms, the employer, or management, has a strong hand.  If he believes the union's demands for more pay and better working conditions are too extreme, he can close down or shutter the business and wait.  The union can strike but the management can outlast the union.  Hence, there are limits to what the union can expect from collective bargaining.

In the case of public employee unions, the management does not have as strong or as free a hand as the manager of a private business.  If the union calls for a work stoppage (i.e., goes on strike) the people affected are the voters who choose the managers.  It is not acceptable for the managers to try to wait out the strike.  The public demands and needs the services that are being stopped by the strike.  There is pressure on the management to settle the strike as soon as possible.  In addition, many managers solicit and use money contributions from public employee unions during election campaigns.  Many managers thus "owe" the unions after a successful election.

Is this a problem that is serious enough that we must look for a solution?  Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, thinks so.  I don't agree with him that the solution can be found simply  by enacting a law that prohibits collective bargaining.  To begin with, it isn't collective bargaining by itself that is the problem.  In addition, there is no law that can prevent workers from publicly demanding pay increases, better working conditions, better pensions, better vacations, better medical benefits, etc.  If workers are dissatisfied, they are going to protest, law or no law.  They will strike, law or no law.  Putting down such demands and such actions requires draconian measures that are not supported by most Americans.

I am not wise enough to have at hand a solution that is simple, fair, and effective.  There may not be such a solution.  Perhaps the best thing to do is to collect opinions and suggestions and debate them.  The situation has taken a long time to constitute a serious problem.  The solution may also take a long time, with many false starts, ill-guided attempts, and probably some bad feelings.  Any suggestions you have will be posted as a comment after this article.

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