Today on NBC’s Meet the Press, Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) spoke eloquently (see below) about the ongoing debate over collective bargaining that has halted legislation in Wisconsin and seized the nation’s interest over the past few weeks. Walker, who has resolutely stood firm in his showdown with the Democrats, has proposed legislation that would not only require public unions to bear greater responsibility for certain benefits, but would also end the “right” of collective bargaining for public unions.
In reality there are two major issues at work. The first and most immediate is the budget issue. This has predictably been relatively uncontroversial. As most acknowledge, states across the country are in dire budgetary straits. Accordingly, the Wisconsin public unions have agreed to shoulder the increased responsibility for their fringe benefits.
It is, however, the second issue – namely the proposed abolition of collective bargaining for benefits – that has driven the unions into a fury and their Democratic supporters into Illinois. Democrats have become absolutely apoplectic about the attacks on their supposed rights, effectively shutting down the Wisconsin legislature and moving their foot-soldiers into the capitol building in Madison.
The battle is unsurprising, despite its contemptibility. It is natural to expect unions to defend the unjust handouts and special privileges conferred upon them by the power of the state and to stalwartly fight to prevent their eradication. Nevertheless, it is quite laudable that Governor Walker has had the fortitude to stand-up to the tyranny of collective bargaining and unions.
The argument for such a strong criticism of unions is simple. Unions, like any institution that has coercive power, can – and do – cause severe harm to others that may cross their paths. The unions have been afforded a rare opportunity to wield the coercive power that should only be possessed by governments (and even then in limited fashions). No other institution is granted such sweeping powers of coercion over private individuals. For instance, the automatic and mandatory deduction of union dues from paychecks is simply the power of taxation in private hands.
Furthermore, unions have severe distorting powers. They drive wages up and cause unemployment. A union is essentially a private club, established with explicit government approval, where benefits are unjustly taken from those who are excluded and given to those lucky enough to call themselves members. As Friedrich Hayek argues, the real crushing power of unions is not so much the power they have over their members, but the power they possess over those outside of the union. Not only is this arbitrary and uneconomical, it is blatantly unjust. No organization, whether union or otherwise, should be granted such powers of coercion.
For those union supporters who argue in terms of workers’ protections, their aims are noble yet misguided. Union-busting is about destroying a special interest, not about hurting workers. As Governor Walker argues, Wisconsin workers are comprehensively protected by a multitude of legislation - and rightly so. There is no dispute that workers, like other groups, should have protection from mistreatment. However, unions, due to the inherent harm caused by their coercive power, are simply not the proper forum for maintaining worker protections.
The battle against collective bargaining is a small step in the right direction. Unions should not be afforded any special privileges under the law. They should be allowed to exist like any private organization – free to assist their members in a variety of fashions but stripped of any pseudo-legal power over others. Governor Walker should be applauded for his resilience and justness in attacking a bastion of cronyism and illiberalism.