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Examining Fundamental Disagreements Over Public Employees’ Rights

Crowd inside Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 17; Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy Peter Patau

Crowd inside Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 17; Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy Peter Patau

The standoff in Wisconsin between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a combination of state workers and Democratic state lawmakers over cutting the rights of public employee unions raises one of those fundamental questions about our system of government that is seldom addressed. Should public-sector workers be able to bargain collectively with state governments over pay, benefits and working conditions? With taxpayers serving as the ultimate “boss” of these government workers, do they need the same protection that private-sector unions offer their members?

Conservatives, including the newly elected Governor Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican state legislators, backed by like-minded thinkers around the country, argue they don’t. In their view, collective bargaining has enabled the creation of costly wage and benefit packages that were too generous to begin with, and are now at the core of a mountain of expensive obligations most states can no longer afford.

On the other hand, the unions that represent teachers, firefighters, police, sanitation workers and other government employees say their members need the additional leverage a union provides since they work at jobs crucial to their community, but possibly without the muscle to make sure they are treated fairly and with dignity.

Both sides in this fight recognize how large the stakes are: potentially the future of America’s organized labor movement. The backbone of the movement has shifted away from manufacturing, and toward government employees at the local, state and federal levels. Today, 40 percent of public-sector workers are represented by labor unions compared to only 7.7 percent of private-sector workers, so this is not an academic exercise. But since much of the research on unions has been done at the university level, I checked in with two college professors, both steeped in the issue, but with diametrically opposed views, to get a better understanding of the core argument.

Dr. Richard Epstein, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, who is on the law faculties at New York University and the University of Chicago, and who is a recognized scholar on labor law, told me Governor Walker is not going far enough. Epstein believes that in order to shrink the size of government, in his mind an essential for the long-term health of the country, not only programs, but collective-bargaining rights must be eliminated. Even when the economy recovers, he argues, unions will continue to demand pensions and other benefits far out of line with comparable jobs in the private sector. This is an expense government cannot ultimately meet, Epstein concludes: “Even after the unions give back the money (wage increases),” they will return, keep on demanding ever larger packages. “It’s the tree that keeps on growing. I say cut the whole thing down.”

Epstein cites studies by the conservative Manhattan Institute showing that while wage differentials between the public and private sector are relatively small – 5 to 7 percent — pension differentials are more than 40 percent greater for public-sector workers.
A completely different view is held by Dr. Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He writes off much of the current dispute to what he calls a “bust period” in the boom-and-bust cycle of state budgets that has governors and other state officials now anxiously looking for ways to balance their budgets. For Lichtenstein, it’s not all about money, but about the fundamental fairness that is owed to public-sector workers, who need unions, he says, to enforce laws on the books that are meant to protect them. (He adds unions provide this function at a lower cost than repeated lawsuits would.)

Lichtenstein’s other main argument is that it’s entirely natural that government workers would have attractive pension benefits, since many are paid relatively low wages, relative to their education and skill levels. He describes it as a form of deferred compensation, making the comparatively (compared to private sector) poorly paid jobs of teachers and firefighters more attractive through decent pension and other benefit packages.

Both Epstein and Lichtenstein are unbending, even passionate, in their points of view: Epstein believing all unions, including public-sector unions, don’t have the best interest of their members at heart; and Lichtenstein believing trade unionism is an essential element of democracy. The latter says the two are “twins in the womb,” and goes so far as to ask if real democracy is possible without trade unions. Listening to them, it’s easy to understand how this argument that has raged in academic circles for decades, since President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order allowing public employees to form unions, is playing out in the public arena today with the heat and resistance to compromise, that it is.

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