The ugly truth about ‘collective’ bargaining

Less than two weeks ago political strategist Dick Morris conducted a poll of likely Wisconsin voters that produced some strange results. By a margin of 74-18, those polled want teachers and other government workers to contribute more toward their health insurance premiums, and by an even larger margin (79-16) they want public employees to pay a larger share of their pension costs. Voters also want to end the automatic deduction of union dues from public employees’ paychecks (54-34) and want to require that pay increases that exceed the rate of inflation be submitted to referendum (66-30).

At the same time poll respondents say (by a 54-41 margin) that they don’t want to limit the collective bargaining rights of the public workers’ unions. But by a 58-38 margin, they want issues such as tenure, merit pay, and the right to fire incompetent teachers taken off the bargaining table.

I suppose this could be taken as proof of the Arrow impossibility theorem — that there is no voting system consistent with both individual rationality and democratic principles that will produce consistently rational results. Or, more likely, it just shows that people don’t really understand what “collective” bargaining is.

Whatever Governor Walker’s intentions, his proposed reforms amount to union-busting, just as his critics charge. Collective bargaining becomes a sham when there is nothing to bargain about. And it becomes impossible when a union loses the ability to coerce dues out of the workers it claims to represent. So for Wisconsin voters to say they support collective bargaining, while at the same time expressing strong support for reforms that will kill it, is to reveal a profound misunderstanding.

Since Morris is a Fox News contributor and is more or less conservative, his finding that a significant majority of Wisconsin voters support collective bargaining, at least in principle, cannot be dismissed out of hand. Recent nationwide polls conducted by Pew Research and The New York Times returned similar results.

“Collective bargaining”, it seems, is one of those sacred cows to which everyone must pay proper homage. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if a poll were to reveal that a majority of Americans believe it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Even the conservative Jonah Goldberg, in an otherwise intelligent opinion piece in which he argued for an end to collective bargaining for all government workers, felt obliged to say nice things about unionism in the private sector.

All this shows just how successful generations of union propagandists and leftist historians have been in glorifying unions and demonizing all those who resist them or question the need for their existence.

While unions and their many apologists in academia and the news media try to pretend that collective bargaining is nothing more than workers exercising their right to freely assemble, in reality collective bargaining is based on coercion, which often takes the form of actual or threatened violence. And the ugly truth is that this coercion is directed against those for whom the unions claim to be fighting. In fact, unions would not be able to have most of their demands met if they were not able to coerce both their own members and others who would be willing to do the work union members do.

In his seminal work The Logic of Collective Action, the late economist Mancur Olson observed that unions provide a collective good to their members in that benefits negotiated by the union are provided to each member of the bargaining unit regardless of whether that member has contributed anything to the union. Since the worker gets the benefits of collective bargaining no matter what he does, he has little incentive to join the union. In this respect, unions are not unlike governments, which also provide collective goods to their citizens but, because of the nature of the goods provided (e.g., national defense), they are unable to withhold those goods from those who do not contribute. Like governments, unions have to use coercion to compel those who benefit from collective bargaining to contribute. That is why unions demand that a closed shop and dues checkoff be part of their contracts with employers.

A question that might be asked here is: why doesn’t the union just negotiate on behalf of its dues-paying members? That is, why not restrict any benefits won by collective bargaining to union members, and leave others to fend for themselves? It doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that management would love a contract like that. And the reason is obvious: if union members have to be paid higher wages and benefits than non-union workers, then only the latter will be hired from that point on. For a contract to be effective in raising wages and benefits, it has to apply to everybody.

Unions don’t coerce just their own members. To be effective, they also have to coerce non-union workers who are able and willing to do the same jobs union members are doing. This means keeping them from taking the union members’ jobs, especially during a strike, and historically unions have had few qualms about using violence or the threat of violence to accomplish this end.

One thought on “The ugly truth about ‘collective’ bargaining”

  1. I disagree with the assertion that “…public employees’ unions are bankrupting the country…” Whether in the private sector or the public sector, management has always taken care of themselves first. In the private sector, the ratio of management compensation to worker compensation has grown from 40X to approximately 400X. In the public sector, well, the compensation the city council of Bell, California voted itself comes to mind. No, it’s not the public employees’ unions that are bankrupting this country, it’s the politicians; they have a far greater impact on government expenditures than public employees’ unions ever will.

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