February 22, 2011 9 Comments
On Wisconsin and unions, opinions will vary but I would think there is one principle that all rational, intelligent people could agree on, which is: however important unions are, they’re more important to have in the private sector than in the public sector.
I am not a union fan. To me unions are just another Insider’s Game: ‘let’s set up an institution where we get to collect part of everyone’s paycheck, and in return claim to speak on their behalf’. Who plays and succeeds at this game? Charismatic, eloquent types who instinctively know they will rise to the top of such crowds. So, unsurprisingly, that’s who wants games like this to exist and clamors for laws to create them. People are naturally inclined to favor games in which they perceive themselves to have a natural advantage. Which equally explains why I don’t support unions.
But unions were not supported or created based on those arguments, obviously. There were and are principled arguments for them. One principled argument is that the ‘right’ to
be forced to join a union and have your paycheck garnished unionize is something that flows from free speech, or assembly, or something – something like an obvious emergent right that builds off basic, individual, inalienable rights.
This justification breaks down upon even the most superficial inspection. If all unions were about was speech and assembly (and withholding your labor), there would be nothing controversial about them. Yes of course, people have the right to form ‘clubs’ of whatever sort with each other, go to meetings, give part of their paycheck to other people, to complain about things, and if they are really unhappy with their working conditions (including wages), not go to work and say they’ll only come back if they get more pay. But that is not actually what unions do – none of that is where the rubber meets the road, because it fails to incorporate the key points about modern unions: 1. being able to force people to join them, i.e. monopolize labor, 2. being able to force a company to negotiate with certain dudes that have been anointed the union leaders, and 3. the company is not allowed to fire people when they don’t come to work (which is ridiculous!).
Points 1-3 form the actual teeth of unions. Without them, unions would be superfluous and pointless. With them, unions are what they are. But none of 1-3 flow from the right to free speech, or free assembly, or any other individual right of any kind. ‘Rights’ in general are a red herring when used as an argument for unions: their existence and justification stems from no such thing.
Instead, their existence stems from government edict, from a series of labor laws explicitly enshrining unions as a sort of legally-created institution around which certain rules of the road are stated. Without those laws, unions wouldn’t exist (or they could, but again, would be superfluous). So they are better understood as a sort of neo-medieval institution, as guilds created and specially empowered by the king to do this and that. In the face of this realization, Why should this institution exist at all? is a natural question.
The principled answer here is simply and explicitly power-based: the idea is that corporations need a counterbalance. Corporations, too, are fictitious, non-organic creations of the state, endowed with certain powers (e.g. limited liability). So the argument is that, as constructed, the system of corporations becomes too powerful and if given no counterbalance this would lead to a bad situation for employees. Hence, let’s empower unions too, by whatever right and authority we used to empower corporations.
This argument, I must say, has some merit. It can’t be easily dismissed; there could be something to it. At the very least, even the most instinctively anti-union person (such as myself) must recognize that there could be sectors or industries in which the (government-created, after all) corporate structure leads to a warped situation, and against which unions are a reasonable and feasible solution.
But this argument ONLY WORKS IF WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE PRIVATE SECTOR.
The public sector consists of people who work for the government, i.e. for taxpayers, to give them some service. There’s no valid concern about ‘corporations’ needing a ‘counterbalance’ here. There are no liberterian qualms to soothe or guilt to ease about having creating an unbalanced situation with limited-liability; government workers simply weren’t hired into LLCs, by definition. They were hired into the one institution – government – that by definition and construction is monopolistic (over the use of force). If you believe government should exist at all, then you should make peace with this property of government, and hence, with whatever effect it might have on its employees.
So when we’re talking about government and those in its employ, there is nothing to ‘correct’, no error to rectify, no ‘original sin’ of limited-liability that can possibly justify the creation of unionization as a fix. Government has monopoly power and (since the last 100 years) paycheck-garnishing power. So the criteria for government should be to deliver the best quality it can to the people at the lowest price – period. Hence, even if unionization is justifiable (and I am not convinced that it is, but I can see the arguments), there’s no valid argument whatsoever for (legally empowered as such) unionization of government workers.
Yet what we’re finding out from the Wisconsin and related examples, it seems, is that these are among the most powerful and un-dislodgeable unions. Which is totally perverse and I dare anyone to try and justify it.