Wisconsin and Unions: You Can’t Get the Right Answer if You’re Asking the Wrong Question

The Big Domestic Policy Question of the Week, driven by Wisconsin’s government budget crisis, is “what to do about government employee unions?”

As the conventional wisdom would have it, collective bargaining between the state and government employees — cops, firefighters and most especially “public educators” — is breaking the government bank by locking the taxpayer into funding healthy wage, and sometimes outrageous benefit and retirement, packages for “public servants.”

Proposed solutions range from “suck it up and pay the bill” on the left to “outlaw government employee unions” on the right … and out in Simply Silly Land, from a guy who bills himself as “one of America’s leading Libertarian thinkers,” the suggestion that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker play Ronald Reagan and fire Wisconsin’s “public” school teachers (hint: Those teachers aren’t employees of the state of Wisconsin).

The conventional wisdom may very well be true, but none of those proposed solutions would amount to more than a band-aid on a gaping wound. That’s because “what to do about government employee unions” is the wrong question. The right question is “what to do about government?”

When government is the employer, employment questions become policy questions … and policy questions are intrinsically political questions. This means that all the players involved will mobilize political power to get the answers they want.

Nothing short of a totalitarian state, complete with conscription to fill classroom teacher slots and secret police to arrest “union troublemakers,” will prevent “public” school teachers from organizing among themselves to get the highest wages and nicest benefit packages they can.

Even formally outlawing unionization for government employees wouldn’t change that. There would still be a wage and benefit schedule, and it would still have to be responsive to teachers’ willingness or unwillingness to accept it. At some point, negotiations would occur. And chances are that the negotiators on the teachers’ side would be wearing NEA t-shirts under their suits and carrying NEA membership cards in their wallets.

The problem isn’t the existence of a teachers’ union. The problem is on the other side of the negotiating table.

A private sector business has to turn a profit to survive. It has finite resources. It has to take in more money than it spends. If its prices get too high, its customers will go elsewhere. No amount of lobbying or majoritarian uproar can trump those considerations.

Government doesn’t operate on a profit motive. In theory, at least, its resources approach the infinite — if it’s out of money, it can just pull out its guns and tax up some more cash. Its customers are forbidden to take their business elsewhere. And lobbying and majoritarian uproar are the deciding factors in its policy considerations.

Get government out of education, and the alleged rapaciousness of teachers’ unions is limited by the ability or inability of private employers to meet their demands (or their ability to generate revenue by forming their own cooperatives and serving willing customers).

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