Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Stephen Bainbridge writes:

A core problem with public sector unionism is that it creates a uniquely powerful interest group. In theory, bureaucrats are supposed to work for and be accountable to the elected representatives of the people. But suppose those bureaucrats organize into large, well-funded, powerful unions that can tip election results. With very few and very unique exceptions, no workplace in which the employees elect the supervisors functions well for long…

In effect, public sector unionism thus means that representatives of the union will often be on both sides of the collective bargaining table. On the one side, the de jure union leaders. On the other side, the bought and paid for politicians. No wonder public sector union wages and benefits are breaking the back of state budgets. They are bargaining with themselves rather than with an arms’-length opponent.


Which might be a more compelling argument if the politicians were bought and paid for primarily by unions. But they’re not. They’re primarily bought and paid for by corporate interests that are anti-union. Even for those, mostly Democrats, for whom unions are a strong constituency, the influence of corporate money is still enormous. Clinton and Obama didn’t pick most of their advisers and cabinet officials in economic matters from the boards of directors of major Wall Street firms (Goldman Sachs in particular) by mere coincidence; both were major recipients of huge amounts of money from the moneyed financial interests.

As for the idea that public sector unions are bankrupting states, this depends entirely on how you frame the issue. Some studies conclude that public employees are overpaid compared to private employees, but it depends largely on which jobs you compare to which jobs — and some jobs simply do not have an equivalent.

What is the private sector equivalent to police officers or firefighters? There are none. But if you choose to compare police officers, for example, to private security guards who don’t have the same training, same risk or same responsibilities, that comparison is going to show that police officers make much higher incomes. But they should, of course, so such a comparison is meaningless.

What is crushing state budgets is dramatically lower revenue as a result of nearly three years of anemic economic growth, high unemployment and the housing bubble killing property tax rates. In Michigan, we’ve cut $10 billion out of the state budget in the last decade, with about a billion of it coming from concessions by public employees unions, but we’re still running $1.5 billion deficits. Why? Lower revenue, not more spending.

But even if public sector unions were driving up wages and benefits and costing taxpayers too much, those are matters for negotiation. Public employees unions have made major concessions in nearly every state as the fiscal crisis has hit for the past few years. But the solution to that cannot be to deprive those unions of their collective bargaining rights, as the Wisconsin governor wants to do. The right to form unions to negotiate on our behalf is far too important to jettison for such a purpose.