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Spurred on by Connor’s lengthy response to my post on Wisconsin unions (I was waiting for someone to take the bait), I will wade into this issue, rather than sweeping it under the rug.  While I don’t see American class warfare a problem of the same magnitude as poverty, war, corruption or crime, I’ll grant that it’s an interesting question, to which there are better and worse answers.  I have an opinion on the NFL labor dispute, so I well ought have an opinion on the situation in Wisconsin, which is admittedly a more important issue.

But I confess, I lack crucial knowledge!  For all the reporting on protests, I don’t understand key details regarding the issues at stake.  I get that the bill limits unions ability to collectively bargain, but I don’t understand what that means.  Particularly, what is the current (pre-legislation) basis of collective bargaining?  When public-sector unions collectively bargain, who do they bargain with, and what leverage does each side have?  Are public-sector unions able to strike if the other side doesn’t meet their demands?  Who is the other side, the governor?  Other elected or appointed figures?

By my cursory reading of the bill, public-sector employees would still be able to organize themselves to negotiate for higher salaries and benefits, but they’d need to negotiate with the state legislature–who can enact laws that increase salaries and benefits.  It doesn’t seem like a particularly harsh blow against anyone’s rights to force unions to negotiate with representatives of the people who write their members’ checks.  What am I missing here?

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3 Comments

  1. I suspected I was taking some bait there.

    Part of the difficulty here is that we’re not really talking about one state and one bill, but multiple states and multiple bills. For example, in Ohio, bills would take away the ability of unions to strike. In Wisconsin, they force unions to limit collective bargaining to questions of wage (which are often a secondary or tertiary concern to union members). In Michigan collective bargaining is in theory preserved, except now the governor has the power to appoint emergency managers that can suspend or dismiss local government and reject agreed-upon union contracts.

    Several things strike me as similar to all of these situations. First, in these states and others, union members have agreed to wage and benefit cuts, especially when those cuts were to be used to address state budget deficits (significantly, they have not). Second, the focus of the governors’ fights are not budgetary, but go right to collective bargaining and striking. These are the two things that make a union a union. The ability to collectively bargain is what gives the union legitimacy as a representative of its members. And the ability to strike is what gives it the ability to leverage its members interests against opposition. A union that cannot collectively bargain or strike isn’t an effective negotiator.

    I’m certainly not a moderate in this regard. I’m unabashedly pro-union. To me the upward transfer of political and purchasing power that happens whenever unions are weakened signals a transfer from a mindset of enlightened self-interest to parasitic self-interest. Opponents of unions have always inflated their cost-impact, but weakening unions creates a real (and often immediate) reduction in standard-of-living that extends far beyond actual union members.

    Case in point: the old truism that if you want a job done well you have to adequately compensate someone. So in Pontiac, Michigan, a city of almost 60,000 the city budget has already forced a reduction in the police force from over 100 full-time officers to 40. The week after Gov. Snyder’s bill passed, the police union voted to dissolve itself, because they were worried that a budget deficit this year would prompt Snyder to appoint an Emergency Manager who could impose even more severe wage and benefits reductions. Snyder has taken 1.7 billion in wage/benefits cuts and cuts to education, but from a budgetary standpoint this is offset by a 1.8 billion deficit through his revision of the corporate tax code. All this is supposedly to lure people and businesses to Michigan and its cities. But would you be tempted to move to a city of 60,000 served by 40 poorly-paid and compensated cops?

  2. Connor,

    From what you say, the Michigan and Ohio situations make a lot more sense to me. I’m trying to understand the bargain part of collective bargaining. I always thought it was, “give us xyz, or we’ll go on strike.” I see how banning strikes affects the negotiation, and I see how giving the governor power to suspend contracts affects the situation. What I’m having trouble with is the mechanism by which Wisconsin’s bill limits unions’ ability to collectively bargain on non-wage issues. Suppose, for instance, Gov. Walker decides to eliminate all health care benefits and pensions for Wisconsin teachers. Can teachers go on strike in response? Has this changed from the status quo prior to the bill?

  3. Well again, each of these situations is incredibly complex, and I’m not quite as familiar with the nuances of Wisconsin. Most unions (as well as the suppression thereof) happened in the context of illegal and “illegal” activities. Enforcement is significant; for example, when I was in New York in 2005, their transit workers went on strike. Technically, by state law, that was an illegal strike, but it was nevertheless effective. I don’t know whether the Wisconsin law would prohibit strikes, but it seems to me that under certain interpretations of the law (if, for example, teacher striked over taxing pension, which is not technically a “wage” issue) that strike could be considered illegal.

    But to your earlier points, it isn’t quite as simple as “xyz”… most unions want to avoid a strike whenever possible. First, it represents lost work and wages. Second, it means members will likely return to a more hostile work environment. Third, injudicious strikes can turn public opinion against unions. Fourth, it’s kind of the nuclear option rolled into one… it just isn’t appropriate in all cases. (Case in point, I remember when the UAW in Flint struck GM and shut it down completely in 1999; they “won” the battle but “lost” the war, as GM retaliated by moving many of the struck operations out of town, where they thought a future strike was less likely).

    An alternative option is political and financial support for officials sympathetic to union priorities. Union giving doesn’t hold a candle to corporate giving, but it is substantial and can swing the outcome of closely contested races. More often then not, the beneficiaries of this support are Democrats. Which is why there’s been a lot of speculation as to the justification for these measures. Walker claims that he’s limiting collective bargaining for fiscal reasons, yet before the bill came to the floor the public sector unions had essentially agreed to all of the concessions contained therein. However, by decapitating the unions — by forcing them to vote on whether to exist each year, limiting their ability to bring workplace issues to the bargaining table, and so forth — he isn’t really addressing Wisconsin’s budgetary woes, but he is limiting a very powerful organization that happens to give substantial support to his opponents.


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  1. […] in Business, Fiscal Policy, Sports Though I’m still somewhat confused as to public-sector unions in Wisconsin, I do have some strong opinions on how policy-makers should […]

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