18 February 2011

Democrats flee Wisconsin

The Democrats have fled the Wisconsin capital to avoid an upcoming vote to deny collective bargaining rights to government workers. I think the Democrats are right but probably for a different reason. The first amendment (supposedly) protects free speech and the right of the people to peaceably assemble. A union is, at its core, a group of people exercising those rights. The fourteenth amendment applies the first to the states -- really, the Supreme Court applied the first to the states, but that's another discussion -- so in my mind, an attempt by the government to bar unions is unconstitutional (keep in mind that I'm no lawyer).

In the particular case of Wisconsin, and really governments in general right now, government incomes are falling (unemployment) and expenses are rising (healthcare, welfare, etc.). Like a business, they need to cut costs, raise revenues, or declare bankruptcy. The latter two are politically untenable, which leaves cost cutting. Hence, the governor wants to cut workers' salaries and benefits. The union is simply trying to prevent that. I'll let you draw your own conclusion about whether or not the union is in the right.

I'm willing to give the Democrats the benefit of the doubt and assume that part of their reasoning in leaving the state was defending constitutionally protected freedoms, as I described above, but I believe much of it to be predicated on the pro-worker position(s) of the Democratic party and the idea that the government workers in question deserve "fair" compensation. The idea of "fair" compensation is murky, at best, when dealing with governments, though. There's a tendency to compare government salaries to private sector salaries and assume that they should be similar (at least) in the cases where the job functions are the same. If government salaries are too low as compared to those in the private sector, government can raise taxes to raise its workers' salaries. This would likely have a negative effect on private sector workers, though, as they would see less "take-home" pay, and employers may even begin to pay less as well. As private sector salaries decreased, government could lower its workers' salaries and, in turn, taxes. In theory, this would reach equilibrium at some point, and we could all claim that "the market works". (Also, keep in mind that I'm no economist.)

In reality, this would probably never actually happen because the union would fight tooth and nail to prevent the government from lowering its workers' salaries, much like what is happening now. The other problem is that it's not the market at work. In a truly free market, people would determine the workers' salaries indirectly by voluntarily paying for the product produced by the workers. The government isn't subject to market forces, though, because its revenues come in the form of taxes. People, in general, don't pay their taxes because they want a product that the government produces; they pay them because the alternative is prison.

I don't mean to sound anti-union; I'm not against them, per se. Like anything else, they can be good, and they can be bad. For interested readers, Henry Hazlitt gives a much fuller and better treatment of the subject.


  1. It's true that an attempt by governments to bar unions would be unconstitutional on the face of it -- even right-to-work states only prohibit the mandatory joining of unions -- though I think it might have more to do with the (implicit) First Amendment right to freedom of association than the (explicit) right to assemble. I also am not a lawyer, so take that with however large a grain of salt you wish.

    However...and this is the sticking point...the government in Wisconsin is NOT trying to bar unions. They are trying to remove some of their collective bargaining rights (though not, crucially, the right to bargain for wages), and they are trying to get annual union certification votes, and they are attempting to make the union collect its own dues instead of simply having the government garnish it off their workers' wages. But none of that interferes with the right of the union to exist.

    Given that you are siding with the Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate based on something that isn't true, I question the firmness of the ground you're treading. Care to reconsider?

  2. I don't see the distinction between "barring unions" and abridging the rights of the union to bargain (for anything). If the government doesn't like the union, it should fire the union workers. It shouldn't be passing laws to determine in which manner a peaceful assembly/association/whatever can act.

  3. Based on your earlier theories, how would the government firing union workers based on their union membership (which is what I guess the basis would have to be) NOT be unconstitutional? How would that NOT be a violation of the right to freedom of association? "We don't like the union you belong to, so you're fired" -- any private-sector company that tried that line would be on trial in the courts and the press by the end of the week.

    So if I'm understanding the implications correctly, the Wisconsin government can't regulate the public-sector union behavior at all. That's effectively what you're saying, isn't it? There would be nothing any American government, state or federal, could do to limit the power of unions...and yet, in this case, the union for which the government can't limit the power has been created explicitly to bargain with the government, in a "negotiation" where on your theory they would hold all the cards. Private-sector companies have some power in a negotiation, yet there would be nothing our own representatives could do in negotiations where our own tax dollars were at stake.

    "It shouldn't be passing laws to determine in which manner a peaceful assembly/association/whatever can act."

    Lovely theory, ridiculous in practice. "Shouldn't" is a strong word when used in an unrestricted sense. Governments can, and do, regulate the freedom of assembly -- subject to reasonable and non-burdensome restrictions. On your theory, the government couldn't so much as regulate the time and place of the assembly. So if I wanted to lead a union protest in the middle of the busiest street in town at 7 am and snarl up traffic all day, costing citizens and businesses who had nothing to do with my protest...or if I wanted to convene the protest on the floor of the legislature or in the governor's office and snarl up the people's business...there could be nothing done.

    Perhaps the message here is that public-sector unions are simply incompatible with our system of government. You don't seem to like the idea of the government being able to regulate the behavior of the union, since it's one of the players at the table in these negotiations and could thus tilt the balance of power its way. Fair enough. But your solution un-levels the playing field in the opposite direction; by removing the power of the government to regulate a union that it has to bargain with, you're allowing the union to dictate terms. Either war, there's no fair and impartial arbiter to set the conditions for negotiation, and to ensure that the interests of both sides are respected while the rights of both sides are recognized.

  4. Firing workers does not violate the workers' freedom of association. The first amendment protects the right to freely associate. Nothing grants a person the *right* to be hired/employed by another.

    Employers want to pay as little as possible; employees want to be paid as much as possible. Let them sit down and negotiate. If they can't reach an agreement, then they don't contract with each other. End of story.

    Typically, in a (non-union) negotiation, the employer has more power because the prospective worker needs the job more than the employer needs the *particular* employee. Unions are an attempt to deal with this by predicating a significant number of jobs on any particular member's job. So, employees fired union workers to try to break the unions, and then the government made it illegal to fire workers because they are in a union, a clear violation of the employers' property rights.

    Now the government is suffering the blowback of its own policy. It can't fire the workers because of the Wagner Act, but to try to regulate them is a violation of the first amendment. It's such delicious irony.

  5. if majority of votes pass the law, then why would it matter if the democrats left wisconsin.

    mark thuesen

  6. @Mark: Due to rules governing the senate, it takes 20 members present to begin conducting business. Republicans only have 19.

  7. One aspect of "unions" that I didn't see mentioned is that these groups function largely like 'slave labor' institutions. In many cases to get said job you have to 1) join the union and 2) live by the unions rules. If you're a member of a specific union (firefighting union for example) you may be prevented (depending on the union) from doing volunteer firefighter work. How is this freedom? In addition, we go back to one of the author's earlier posts relating to the "majority ruling the minority"...Unions (by sheer size) are able to influence elections. Public unions in particular end ultimately in raising taxes on the rest of the state's (etc..) tax payers. Just look at New Jersey's teacher unions for example. The head of the teacher's union makes over a million dollars a year (salary). The Governor of the state, Chris Christi, makes $175,000 dollars a year...The differences in pay are more than obvious and should make anyone question the legitimacy of 'public' unions in general (are taxpayers being represented or are public unions being represented?)


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