A Perspective on the Union Debate

Wisconsin’s Budget Repair Bill has generated a significant amount of discussion, not only in the State of Wisconsin, but across the nation. It has brought the issue of Public-Sector Unions to the forefront and has polarized the nation in such a way that it has become much more than the issue itself. It has become a battleground of ideology where the underlying philosophy is more important than the specific legislation that started it. The Unions and the professional left have organized a massive campaign to fight what they describe as “reversing the progess of the last 100 years”. The problem is, most of their assertions are just not accurate and many people are taking positions based on information that is misleading at best.

I’ve decided to take a look at some of the arguments that have been made in hopes of providing a different perspective than that which has been propagated in the mainstream media. The supporters of Wisconsin’s budget bill are being portrayed as being anti-worker. They’re being portrayed as wanting to take away workers’ rights to benefit the “evil, rich corporations”. They’re being portrayed as being union-busters and being motivated only by money, and they’re being portrayed as taking the country backwards.


Is the debate about money? You bet it is. The State of Wisconsin is facing a $3.6B budget deficit over the next two years. Part of the proposal was for public employees to pay a portion of their health care and retirement benefits and in exchange, the State agreed to refrain from layoffs. The Unions agreed to the financial givebacks in the bill, so their argument is that limiting the collective bargaining rights is unnecessary and tantamount to union busting. The fact is, that’s just not true.

The financial concessions solve the immediate problem (inluding avoiding layoffs), but do nothing to prevent the problem from occuring again. If collective bargaining goes unchecked, the State will find itself in the same position in the future. What the GOP is trying to do is solve the problem permanently, not just put a band-aid on it for a few more years. People need to realize that the financial issues we have as a nation, on both the Federal and State levels, are the result of decades of poor financial management and mediocre, short term “solutions”. None of the measures that have been implemented over this time period were designed to prevent the problems from occuring again, so as one would expect, they just keep coming up with no end in sight.

Collective Bargaining

The GOP wants to “take away workers’ rights”, or so the mantra goes, but is this really the case? I submit to you that it is not. This is not about collective bargaining or workers’ rights and those “rights” are not being taken away. They are being limited. There is a significant difference. Public sector workers will still be able to collectively bargain for wage increases up to the Consumer Price Index but they will no longer be able to bargain for their health benefits or retirement plans. It’s important to note that Federal employees cannot bargain at all, nor can public sector workers in many states. The changes in Wisconsin still put those workers in a better position than a large number of their counterparts elsewhere.

Workers’ Rights

Let’s dispose with the assertion that workers’ rights are somehow on the same level with the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. They are not. Do workers have rights? Of course they do, but to imply that limiting them is somehow un-Constitutional is just pure folly. The Constitution guarantees us all “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It does not guarantee that you will be happy, only that you can enjoy freedom and can pursue your own happiness based on that freedom. The rights that workers enjoy are not based on the Constitution, but on the bevy of Federal and State labor and safety laws that have been put in place to protect workers.

This is where the argument in favor of collective bargaining goes south. They say that this is what the issue is about, but it’s not. Collective bargaining is just the rallying cry that the unions are using to mobilize supporters and to try and sway public opinion, but it’s just not true. It’s about the provision in the legislation that changes the law so that public employees are no longer required to join the union as a condition of employment and makes the union be certified on an annual basis by a vote of the workers.

That is what this is about. The unions now will have to work for their money. Instead of being on the public employee subsidized (and ultimately, taxpayer subsidized) gravy train, they have to justify their existence and provide value to their members if they hope to continue collecting dues payments. If it was about workers’ rights, what about the rights of workers to choose if they want to be in the union? There is a lot more merit of Constitutionality to that argument than there is to the argument that limiting collective bargaining rights is un-Constitutional.

This strikes at the core of the union power base and essentially backs big labor into a corner. If they can’t sway public opinion to reverse this type of legislation, their days are numbered and they know it. It’s just that simple. Union membership has been on the decline for decades, in large part due to the fact that we have hundreds of labor and safety laws now that protect workers and because many states have changed their laws to give public employess the right to choose whether or not they want to join the union. Workers are still free to join the union if they want to, but they are not required as a condition of employment.

On the subject of workers’ rights, what about the rights of private sector workers? The debate is being framed as an assault on workers, but the truth is that public sector workers make up less than 10% of the workforce in this country. What about the rights of the other 90+ percent, which incidently, are the ones who pay for the public employees? These workers not only have to pay for a portion of their own health insurance and retirement benefits, but they are the ones who pick up the tab for the public employees as well. Why don’t the unions care about them?? Where’s the public discussion about them, the taxpayers? The hard fact is that the unions don’t care about the non-union workers because those workers don’t pay them membership dues.

Let’s not forget about the collective bargaining piece. This piece is crucial because the problem with allowing it for public sector workers is that it puts the unions on both sides of the negotiation table. Unions contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to political campaigns in the last election cycle, roughly 98% of which went to Democrats. This gives them enormous influence over the politicians that they are negotiating with to secure better contracts for the workers. In fact, it’s really not a negotiation because the outcome is pre-determined, which makes it impossible for it to result in a fair deal for the taxpayers that carry the burden. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a very progressive President and a big supporter of unions, was strongly against collective bargaining for public employees.

To illustrate this point, forget your opinion on the subject for a moment and ask yourself this question:

If unions made 98% of their political contributions to Republican politicians instead of Democrats, would the left still be so supportive of collective bargaining and “workers’ rights”?

Absolutely not. They would be screaming from the mountaintops about the “corruption” and “back room deals” and they would use it as “just another example” of how the right is “against average Americans”.

This whole issue is much simpler than is being reported by the media and the press releases. It’s not about rights, it’s about money and power. It’s about money to the supporters of the legislation, who are trying to put a permanent fix on a portion of the State of Wisconsin’s budget problems. It’s about money and power to the legislation’s opponents, who are trying to protect their revenue stream, which funds their political influence on the politicians who can support their political agenda.

Decide for yourself.


Photo by WisPolitics.com

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