Protesters in Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, are defending the “right to collective bargaining.” Guess what? There is no right to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a legislated privilege given to unions by friendly lawmakers.
The federal courts have been very clear on this. A federal district court in North Carolina put it quite eloquently in a decision upholding the Tar Heel State’s law prohibiting public-sector bargaining, saying, “All citizens have the right to associate in groups to advocate their special interests to the government. It is something entirely different to grant any one interest group special status and access to the decision-making process.”
A law granting public-sector unions monopoly bargaining privileges gives a union, a special interest group, two bites at the apple. First, it uses its political clout to elect public officials. Then it negotiates with the very same officials.
When you consider that between 70 and 80 percent of all local government expenditures are personnel costs, you begin to get an idea of the magnitude of the power such laws give unions.
Not only is there no right to collective bargaining in public employment, it is wrong. Collective bargaining distorts and corrupts democratic government.
Collective bargaining is a process for employer-employee relations that was designed for the private sector. This process served as the model for the development of public-sector collective bargaining without taking into account the fundamental differences between the two sectors.
Government is inherently a monopoly. If you don’t like a decision of government, you can’t check with the competition to see whether you can get a decision more to your liking. Business, on the other hand, is competitive. If you don’t like the cars being made by one manufacturer, you can check with another to see whether you can find one you like better.
In business, the bottom line is dollars. No matter how politically popular a business decision might be, if it bankrupts the company it is a failure. In government, the bottom line is votes. No matter how financially ruinous a decision might be, if it gets you re-elected, it is a success.
More importantly, government is sovereign, while all other institutions in our society depend on free choice. Sovereignty is the right to use force to enforce decisions. We may not think about it in our everyday lives, but lurking in the background behind every government rule or regulation is the fact that government has the right and the power to use force to enforce it.
We might resent that when it comes to things like taxes, but we need it when it comes to things like murder and mayhem. A sovereign institution might choose to seek input from interested parties about a decision, but when the decision is made, it is the law.
How different this is from a typical public-sector bargaining situation which the union makes demands and those demands are backed up by the threat — whether legal or illegal — of a strike.
There is a consequence to this distortion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, the total compensation costs of state and local government workers were 44 percent higher than private industry; pay was only 33 percent higher, but benefits cost 70 percent more.
Public-sector collective bargaining was a creature of the social revolution that took place in this nation in the ’60s and ’70s. It was the wrong thing to do, but unlike many other mistakes it created a very powerful institution that will fight furiously against any effort to repeal or reform it. That’s what’s happening now in Wisconsin and Ohio and in many different ways in states all around the nation.
David Denholm is president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a research and education organization that studies labor unions and their influence on public policy. This commentary first appeared on February 21, 2011 in The Washington Examiner and is published here with permission from the author.