Public employee unions vs. the public

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker created a firestorm recently by proposing legislation that weakens the collective bargaining power of public employee unions. Some of the news coverage made the governor’s actions seem arbitrary, even capricious. But they were anything but.

Wisconsin and many other states — including California, Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio — are facing public employee payroll and benefit costs taxpayers can’t afford. Public employee unions have driven the spiraling costs.

Public employee wages and benefits are typically not the result of simple collective bargaining. They are the result of the public employee unions’ political and lobbying activities — which, in many states, are financed with union dues employees are forced to pay as a condition of employment.

Thus, the unions use their power and purse to elect politicians willing to grant them more power — and use that power to extract financial concessions from the same politicians. It’s been an ongoing vicious cycle in some states for many years, with the ultimate bill-payer — the taxpayer — the odd man out.

Walker was brave enough to say, “Enough. Time to put taxpayers first.”

It’s unfortunate that the Wisconsin showdown became a media circus because important questions are involved. For example, should public employees have the same bargaining “rights” as private-sector employees?

If public finance worked the same way as the commercial marketplace it would be easy to say yes. But it doesn’t. In the marketplace consumers have many options: They can choose among different products with different features and costs. They can go “upmarket” or “downmarket.” They can refuse to buy. They usually have the right to return a bad product and get a refund.

But they can’t refuse to pay their taxes. If the schools aren’t educating their kids they can’t ask for their money back. Short of selling their homes and looking for new jobs elsewhere, they’re stuck with the bill when politicians collude with union officials to increase costs.

We also need to ask: Who’s acting in the public’s interest?

From the scenes on the TV screen, the Wisconsin protesters appeared to be having a good time, from singing songs from the musical stage version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” to practicing yoga and meditation in the halls of the state capitol.

But, at whose expense? Were the schoolteachers who took “sick days” to man the Badger State’s barricades showing concern for their students — or concern for themselves?

American children, as we all know, increasingly are falling academically behind those of China and other nations, as literacy rates and science and math scores have plummeted over the past several decades. Yet, members of the teachers union, the National Education Association, appear more concerned about small class sizes, the availability of teachers’ aides, the length of the school day and school year, and their own pay and benefits — none of which has any significant impact on educational outcomes — than they are about classroom results.

Public school teachers should be rewarded because their students are performing at high levels, not because their labor unions can cajole or intimidate public officials into complying with their demands. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that only about one-third of Wisconsin’s eighth-graders can read at grade level. Is this the bargain taxpayers thought they would get when the state granted public employee unions collective bargaining rights?

Walker has done taxpayers everywhere a public service by forcing this issue onto the public agenda.

It is past time to recognize that even if the emperor’s clothes sport a union label, he is still naked.

• Shughart is a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, Calif. 94621 and the Frederick A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Mississippi.

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