Last night as I was entering the Madison College building to go to orchestra rehearsal I saw bus after bus, paid for by voluminous union money, unloading scores of union members with professionally printed signs to launch this protest against Gov. Walker's just-begun attempt to force state workers to accept reductions in pay and perqs. His plan is to strip most state employees of some of their collective bargaining rights, on the theory that this is what has so far blocked them from having to accept their share of the reductions that workers in the private sector have had to suffer.
In the angry comments on the plan, you could hardly guess that the downtrodden "workers" being discussed are government workers, and that the "unions" are public service unions only. However, they are, and it is very important to realize that.
We are not talking about the proletariat here. We are talking about people who have the power to tax: something the rest of us do not have.
If Walker were trying to break the back of private sector unions, I would agree that this is an atrocity of Hitlerian proportions. (Come to think of it, crushing the private sector unions is exactly what the Führer did, soon after taking office.) But I think private sector unions and public sector unions are completely different animals: economically, ethically, and politically different.
There is a powerful rationale for having private sector unions. Suppose you work in a competitive market, and you persuade your employer to raise your salary significantly. Your boss is competing with people who did not incur that particular expense. That is a reason, maybe a good one, for the employer not to give you the raise. If all the workers in your company bargain as one, that blunts this reason considerably. If all in your industry do -- so much the better! Now your boss will not have to compete against people who did not incur this expense.
Great! The discipline of competitive markets exerts a downward pressure on all business expenses, including employee salaries. Unions are anti-competitive devices, instruments of monopoly power, and thus highly attractive to those who believe that their bargaining position in a competitive market is weak.
With government employees this argument is completely lacking. You employer does not compete in the market. To give you more money, all they need do is take some more from the taxpayers, either present taxpayers or - better yet - future ones. (If they are a nation-state, they can just print it up!) People have often commented that public and private unions behave very differently. Private sector unions, they say, are adversarial, while public sector unions are "collusive."
Obviously, if you combine this with collective bargaining, you can get some inequitable distributions of benefits and burdens. For three years now, UW professors have endured a 3% cut in pay. Meanwhile, the K-12 teachers in the same community have experienced merely a lack of pay increases. Why the difference? The public school teachers are unionized and the professors are not. Why should the the K-12 teachers not experience their fair share of the pain? The private sector workers who must work to support them with their tax dollars are suffering losses, in some cases devastating ones. Government workers should not be a privileged aristocracy.
If to achieve this end we need to strip them in many cases of the "right" to collective bargaining, then so be it.
Update: Here Jonah Goldberg argues that the real reason for public sector unions is not, and never was, based on considerations of justice or fairness: The actual reason is purely political. See also this.