As the battle over public unions rages on in Wisconsin and elsewhere, perhaps we should step back and take a broad look at the relationships between unions, politicians, and workers in our nation.
No one can argue the importance of labor unions in American history. The elimination of child labor, the eight hour workday, the concept of overtime, the emergence of anti-discrimination laws, the founding of unemployment insurance, and a host of other laudable accomplishments can be attributed directly to the efforts of unionized workers over the last century.
To make sense of what’s happening in Wisconsin, it’s important to understand the differences between private and public unions.
The main point of contention between a private union and a corporation – for instance, the relationship of United Auto Workers to Chrysler – is how profit should be divided between labor and management.
Management feels entitled to a larger slice of pie since they craft the corporate policy and structure that produces profit. Labor feels they are entitled to a greater share since they create the physical products that generate income.
The overarching constraint faced by both union members and management is that there is only so much profit to be had. In short, the relationship between a private union and a corporation is a form of adversarial negotiation, with each side making demands and concessions in pursuit of a tolerable working relationship.
If the union pushes too hard for increased pay or benefits, there is a risk that the company will fail, and all the union members will be suddenly out of work. Conversely, if management does not play nice, the workers may strike, which also risks the solvency of the corporation.
This tug of war between a private union and management creates a point of compromise, where the overall risk-to-reward ratio is acceptable to both parties, and the insolvency of the company can be avoided.
In a government union, we find an entirely different set of constraints.
Ideally, elected officials act as stewards to ensure that the people receive maximum value for money spent on public works. Meanwhile, the public union ensures that government employees are offered fair wages and benefits – much like unions in the private sector.
But with the emergence of the Political Action Committee entity in 1974, and the increasing ease with which unions can donate money to politicians running for office, we find a massive wrench in the gears. If a public union stacks gold in the war chest of an elected representative, and openly offers to continue to do so in the future, the quid pro quo is clear: you vote us an increase in pay, and we continue to finance your candidacy.
In short, public unions and elected officials enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Each supports the demands of the other, since they both desire the same end. Make no mistake, this is the direct opposite of the antagonistic relationships between unions and management in the private sector.
It is true that all employees have collective bargaining rights, as stated plainly in Article 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. However, the shrill voices accusing Governor Walker of attempting to quash these rights are wrong. This legislation in no way challenges the rights of public employees to unionize.
Walker’s bill aims to cap total negotiable wage increases for public employees based on the consumer price index unless approved by referendum. Which means public unions could not petition the state for wage increases beyond a reasonable amount unless the issue was subjected to a popular vote. Further, public unions would no longer be allowed to mandate union membership or obligate employees to pay union dues. All other rights remain in force.
Is it so draconian to allow the people of Wisconsin to vote on how their tax dollars are spent, or to allow public employees to make their own decisions on union membership?
The outcome of the war in Wisconsin foreshadows the future of our nation. On the one hand, we have a duly elected conservative governor attempting to dismantle a tangled knot of corrupted policy. On the other, we have a political movement dedicated to the continuation of a questionable status quo.
The stakes could not be higher. If Governor Walker is able to fulfill his mandate, then the age of the handshake between public unions and elected officials has come to an end. If not, then we begin our long, bleak march toward European proto-socialism.
Jubal McMillan is an area resident and contributes a twice-monthly column for The Escalon Times and periodically appears in The Oakdale Leader and The Riverbank News. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.