Sunday, February 20, 2011

Public Employee Unions ‘Unthinkable and Intolerable’

Much attention is focused in Wisconsin where thousands public employees gathered at the state capital protesting pending legislation that would, among other things, force the union members to assume greater responsibility for their own health care coverage and retirement benefits, as part of an effort to balance the state budget. These union members, aided and abetted by the Democrat Party and even the President, have expressed their displeasure by closing down schools and effectively brought the machinery of state government to a halt.

Some on the left claim the actions of the Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature are really about depriving public employees the right of collective bargaining, not balancing the budget.

There are arguments on both sides.

However, it raises an even more basic question: Should public employees have the right to collective bargaining?

Unions were formed in the private sector. Companies profited because of the workers’ labor. Unions were a way for workers to share the profits they created.

But the public sector has no profits; it creates no wealth.

In the private sector, the union negotiates with a company’s owners, be it a single individual or stockholders.

In the public sector, the owners are the taxpayers, most of whom have smaller salaries and poorer health care coverage and retirement benefits than their counterparts in the public sector.

For these and other reasons, many influential thinkers were leery of public employee unions.

One of those concerned voices raised belonged to George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. I, 1955, Meany said, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Part of his reasoning was that government collective bargaining meant bargaining meant that voters no longer had the final say on public policy, which goes to the heart of the democratic system.

Another such thinker called the concept of public employee unions “unthinkable and intolerable.” Those words were from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the most labor-friendly president of the 20th century. He wrote in a 1937 letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees, “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” He continued, “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees.”

What we are witnessing today in Madison, Wisconsin, is the “unthinkable and intolerable” as foretold by Roosevelt and warned of by Meany.

Perhaps collective bargaining by public employees is an idea whose time has come ... and gone.

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