The Wisconsin union problem — week three


Author: Joshua Thompson

We are now starting week 3 of the Wisconsin protests. Or, better said, week three of the Democrat Senators hiding in Illinois preventing a vote on the billAs I wrote about before, the rise in the regulatory state, coupled with the extraordinary wages and benefits the public unions have secured for their members, has caused budgetary crises both in Wisconsin and nationwide.  To be fair, however, the Wisconsin public unions have largely conceded to the direct budgetary items.  Namely, the unions are now willing to pay 5.8% into their pension accounts and 12.6% into their health care premiums (up from 1% and 6% respectively).  

So what issues remain?  Why can't they solve this debate if the budgetary items have been resolved?  There are three major remaining issues: ?(1) Eliminating the ability of public sector unions to collectively bargain for issues other than wages; (2) allowing public sector employees the ability to opt out of the union; and (3) requiring unions to hold annual votes for their members to decide whether they should remain in existence.

Before I address each of these issues, however, a little background is needed. Wisconsin is a forced unionism state.  ???"Forced unionism" means that an individual worker must pay union dues as a condition of employment. If the worker does not pay her dues, she will be fired.  Many states are not so autocratic.  Those "right to work" states recognize a workers' individual right to earn their own living.  Note, however, that even in right-to-work states, teachers' unions still exist. They still lobby the government, provide a forum for ideas among members, and provide real benefits.  So, what is the difference between a public union in a forced unionism state, and a public union in a right-to-work state?

The most fundamental difference between the two scenarios is that in right-to-work states, public sector unions only represent those members who want to be represented by the union.  Money isn't automatically (and forcibly) taken from members' paychecks.  Accordingly, union members remain free to negotiate with their employers and compete with non-union members on an even playing field.

With that background in mind, let's turn to the three issues that remain unresolved in Wisconsin — the three issues that have made the 14 Democrat State Senators flee to Illinois. 

Issue #1— Collective bargaining.  Should public sector unions be able to collectively bargain with the state?  In a forced unionism state like Wisconsin, the public sector unions hold an absolute monopoly over the state's labor force.  Thus, WEAC, the Wisconsin Teachers' Union, has the sole power to negotiate contracts for every single state teacher. And what happens if WEAC doesn't like the state's terms?  Well, since you have to be a dues paying WEAC member to teach in Wisconsin public schools, the state will eventually crumble to your demands. The union, a private organization, holds a monopoly over the state's labor force.  If they don't like the terms offered, they can hold the state in abeyance — they can strike — until the state accedes to those demands.  And the state can do nothing about it.  The state is forbidden, by law, from hiring outside of the union.  In other words, in a forced-unionism state, the union holds all the cards.

How does the situation work in a right-to-work state like Virginia?  There, each school district negotiates salary and benefits with their teachers.  If a teacher doesn't like the terms from school district A, she can try school districts B and C.  School districts compete over teachers and teachers benefit.  But, schools districts are also responsible to the taxpayers, thus you are unlikely to see outrageous benefits without some objection by the taxpayer

Issue #2 — opt out.  Should union members be able to decided for themselves whether to pay union dues, or should they be forced by law to pay dues?  I have been discussing the Wisconsin situation with friends and family for three weeks now, and I have yet to hear a reasoned argument for forcing individuals into paying union dues.  Even the most ardent unionist defenders in my family have failed to offer a solid reason.  The best I could find on the web was this hyperbolic response from a pro-union author: "????Eliminating dues check-off would cripple unions, which would have to rely solely upon voluntary contributions." Oh my!  Voluntary contributions, what ever would they do? 

Of course, it wouldn't cripple unions, as we have seen in the states that don't make such payments a mandatory condition of employment.  But what is he actually saying?  On the one hand, the unionists say they are so big and important that they need to forcibly take money from their unwilling members.  On the other hand, the unionist sheds crocodile tears that let letting people opt out would "cripple unions."  Allowing opt out respects workers right to earn a living, while also ensuring unions only represent those members who actually want the union to represent them.

Issue #3 — annual vote.  This issue largely tracks the reasoning of the previous issue.  If a majority of union members don't want the union to represent them, why should the union be able to represent them?  Apparently unionists not only want money forcibly taken from their members, but they also want legal assurance that their voice can never by questioned by they members they purport to represent.  Not to belabor the point, but this also would not sound the death knell to unions.  Perhaps multiple unions would spring up, or perhaps a majority of members do want to be members of the current union.  Undoubtedly, however, when the union spoke on behalf of its members, we could rest assured that it was representing its members' interests — something that cannot be said of the current forced-unionism practices in Wisconsin.

The issues that remain debated in Wisconsin, though they use unfamiliar terms to those in the private sector (collective bargaining, opt-out), they are not difficult to understand.   When discussing this situation with your friends, family, and colleagues, one question should sum up the debate: Do you think a private organization has any right to hold a monopoly over the labor force, or do you think individual employees should have the opportunity to bargain for their employment on their own terms?

For those who want to live in a free society, the answer is crystal clear.