Wisconsin Labor Brouhaha
APRIL 21, 2011 by SHELDON RICHMAN
Wisconsin’s been through quite a row. The new governor, elected without the support of most government-employee unions, proposed to cut back the scope of collective bargaining for most state workers. Gov. Scott Walker says the budget measure is needed to save money as well as government jobs for the debt-ridden state.
Is the governor’s proposal really an assault on human rights, as advocates of the Wisconsin state employees allege? (Their raucous protests at the state capitol were compared to rebellions in the Middle East.)
A few basics: In a freed market—meaning no privileges, no bailouts, no legal barriers to competition (domestic or foreign), no patents, no protected banking cartel, no regulatory impediments to self-employment, no vast tracts of government-held land—workers would be free to form voluntary associations called unions and business owners would be free to deal with them or not. If not, workers would be free to use nonviolent methods to gain recognition for their unions, including strike threats, boycotts, and sympathy strikes, as well as lesser measures. Violence by any party against any peaceful person would be illegitimate. Freedom of association would be complete, and coerced association would be beyond the pale.
Under such circumstances, everyone’s demands would be tempered by two powerful factors: freedom and competition. Pay workers too little, and they would be bid away by rivals or take up self-employment. Pay them too much, and rivals would attract customers with lower prices. Demand too high a wage, and risk losing out to someone else willing to work for less. Market rivalry would protect everyone from abuse, which is why competition—endless hosannas to it notwithstanding—is usually the target of government intervention.
Regarding government workers, it is a grave mistake to treat so-called public employment like other employment. Governments are monopolies that get their revenue by force, not through voluntary exchange. Thus they don’t face the market test of free competition, and they lack key price information with which to engage in economic calculation. The consequences of this difference are considerable.
As Freeman columnist Charles Baird notes, when government negotiates terms with employees, the parties are coconspirators in the looting of captive taxpayers. (Government employees aren’t taxpayers; they are tax-consumers.) Fundamentally they are not rivals but rather accomplices with a harmony of interests contrary to those of the taxpayers. This is aggravated by the fact that those unions are powerful political actors and rich sources of campaign contributions (the ultimate source of which is the taxpayers) and manpower. A politician negotiating with a government union whose election support he seeks is unlikely to have the taxpayers’ interest uppermost in mind.
Would the working conditions of state workers become intolerable if their unions were restricted? Not likely. But if they did, would it really be so bad if state governments had trouble finding employees?
So, does this mean that free-market advocates should side with the governor of Wisconsin? Actually, no.
State governments are in trouble because they spent profligately when revenues were rolling in and now can’t meet the pension and other obligations they’ve imposed on the taxpayers. As a result, they face a crisis of legitimacy. Some governors realize this and are trying to save the discredited system by trimming spending (for now) and making political hay by resisting the unions. The fiscal hawks even tout cutbacks as ways to produce more revenue in the future. Rarely do you hear a governor call for the shedding and demonopolization of functions like education. So this is largely a fight over how to preserve and divide the tax spoils.
* * *
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Our reviewers report on books covering the financial crisis, traffic jams, secular religions, and regulation.—Sheldon Richman firstname.lastname@example.org