The assault on public-sector unions that began in Wisconsin and is spreading to other states prompts a key question: Should those who work in the private sector have a different set of rights and obligations than the teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters and office managers whose salaries are financed by taxpayers?
“Government unions are not the same thing as private sector unions,” proclaims Jonah Goldberg in a recent column that summed up the argument in defense of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s aggressive attempt to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Let’s examine that for a moment. True, government workers don’t face the same sort of negotiating adversary as those who toil in the private sector, where profit is king and workers can be treated like serfs, especially in an economy with stagnant wages and high unemployment. In government, supposedly, the bosses are us, reined in by civil service regulations and held accountable on the next election day.
This distinction doesn’t always improve the lot of public-sector workers — studies show that the overall compensation of the kind of workers who are storming the capital in Wisconsin is no higher than if those same folks worked in the private sector. But this fight isn’t about the actual payroll and the dollars that Walker supposedly would save. It’s about power.
Collective bargaining is a power tool, the only way ordinary workers can achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own. Has it led to excesses, to profligate pension schemes, provisions that make it all but impossible to fire incompetent employees, work rules that stubbornly resist modernization? Sure. Those abuses need to be addressed anywhere, but especially when public monies are concerned — monies used to pay those who are supposed to educate our children, monitor our safety and make government more efficient, and too often fail to do so.
But that’s not really the power that Walker, Goldberg, et al want to curb. They want to curtail or eliminate the power of labor unions to use their waning clout and still hefty coffers to influence elections by supporting the Democratic Party and, in this view, maintain government at unsustainable levels. “Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government,” Goldberg argues. “The labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when the unions can put so much money in campaign spending.”
This argument willfully ignores the other side of the equation — the even heftier coffers and growing clout of corporate America, which is able to match dollar for dollar and then some any union’s attempts to promote certain candidacies and policies. Wisconsin is a case in point: Press reports note that one of the biggest contributors to Walker’s election campaign was Koch Industries, the energy and consumer products conglomerate owned by the uber-wealthy and strangely secretive billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose anti-union, anti-environment, anti-regulation views are well known.
Unless this nation is going to take dramatic steps to limit all money in politics, then the ordinary worker — whether in City Hall or on the factory floor — deserves the chance to bargain collectively and counteract the forces in corporate America that freely exercise their right to shape the government they pretend to hate.