Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Public Service Employee Unions are Different

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 F├╝hrer 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.


Skip said...

"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."

What unionized state workers have the power to levy taxes?

Lester Hunt said...

I was referring to the corporate body of which they are a functioning part: ie., the state.

Anonymous said...

I simply don't see why the source of the downward pressure on wages/benefits (e.g., market pressure) is relevant here. If there is pressure to keep my labor as cheap as possible, it seems perfectly permissible for me to strongly represent my interests. If I can do that by participating in a union, whether I'm a public or private employee, why is it wrong to do so? After all tax payer funded employers do have a strong incentive to pay workers as little as possible, namely to keep their constituent's taxes as low as possible. The market seems wholly irrelevant.

Lester Hunt said...

Governments have a motive to keep taxes as low as possible? That's a good one. I just had a tooth extracted and this is my first good laugh of the day. Thank you! And I mean that. You've lightened up my day, Anonymous.

ANON2 said...

Saying that the public employee unions are the able to tax citizens because the are the State is obviously incorrect it defeats whatever larger point you were trying to make. I read that and said to myself, "the Professor does not know what he is writing about."
To the larger point, Walker wishes to strip public employees of their bargaining rights because he doesn't want to have to bargain with them. Just as a private employer of a unionized workforce is legally allowed to ask for cuts (and, as the folks at Kohler will tell you, get them), the state can also asks for cuts. Walker just doesn't want to have to ask and so he is trying to simply take away the right to bargain collectively. Notably, he is not trying to take away the collective bargaining rights of police officers and firefighters. Why not? Because they endorsed him. That is strong circumstantial evidence that taking away collective bargaining rights is not needed to balance the budget.
Additionally, your rationale that other public employees should take pay cuts because you had to take one is poor logic. Your job is not the same as theirs and may not have the same value to the state.

Lester Hunt said...

I explained why the state's power to tax is relevant to the pay of state employees in my post. It's about being able to coerce money out of people, vs. having to compete in the market place.

The root ethical issue is why private sector citizens who work to support state workers should have to suffer cuts while state workers are insulated from a like fate by their unions. Twenty states in the union do not even allow such unions to exist. What you have here is one good reason for that.

As to exempting police and firefighters, I am opposed to that, but it is not hard to see a rationale for it that is less slimy than the one you propose. Rather obviously, what these workers do is more urgently essential than, eg., driving a bus or collecting garbage. Also, these people are commonly regarded as "heroes." These could be non-corrupt reasons to want some extra upward pressure on their wages.

Mark M said...

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Professor. I have heard great things about you from a good friend of mine, and they are well borne out by the column.

David said...

Since when do we support the government, be it federal or state, making unilateral decisions that include taking away rights without discussions. I wasn't okay when Obama did it with the healthcare plan. Walker makes me ashamed to identify as conservative, but the fact is, he isn't a real conservative. I don't know what he is, but he isn't who I thought I was voting to run this state. This is overreach. It's plain. It's simple. If you don't see it I'm not sure how you can sleep at night.

Lester Hunt said...

David, It was not nice of the Dems to refuse to negotiate with the Republicans simply because "we won," but as a political sin it does not belong in the same category as the coercive health care bill itself.

The behavior of the Dems and the demonstrators suggests to me that discussion, with them, would get us nowhere. Public service unions seem to cause a sort of moral anesthesia, a numbness to the rights and interests of others. These people feel "entitled."

BTW, the "right" to collectively bargain with the government doesn't even exist in 20 states. 40% of government workers in the US do not have the "right" to form unions at all.

Skip said...

"I was referring to the corporate body of which they are a functioning part: ie., the state."

Then why conflate the two? If it is the non-unionized, elected officials of legislature and the governor who determine taxes, why then label the social workers, janitors, IT staff, etc. as bourgeois? Do you think really think of those who, say, clean the Education building bathrooms, as people who have the power tax? Do you really think that in a practical, proximate sense the janitors of the state lord over those of us in the private sector with the threat of taxation like the Sword of Damocles?

And are you not part of the bourgeois as a faculty member of the UW? The UW receives state funding. You are taking furlough days, are you not? So, although you may not be unionized, you too are part of the corporate body that is the state.

I just don't understand how it is that any given individual within a corporate body is invested with any given power or attribute of that body. If you think that this is indeed the case, how far does it go, in your opinion? E.g. - because I am an American, should it be assumed that I am in favor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because my government wages them? Or would it be fair to say that any given federal employee is pro-war because he or she is a functioning part of the state carrying out these actions?

Lester Hunt said...

Palmer, For the second time, I am not saying these individuals have the power to tax, but that they are part of the government, and that it has the power to tax. I tried to explain how this makes the dynamic by which wages are determined in the public sector completely and utterly different from what it is in the private sector. With you I obviously failed, so here is another try.

This is class warfare. The two classes are net tax payers and net tax consumers. The latter includes the state and all its clients (incl. employees). [That's right -- as a state worker I am at this moment being a traitor to my class. If this be treason, make the most of it!]

The true "upper" class is the extracting class. This has been true since the days of the Pharaohs. Others must work to support me! I am entitled to it! In the behavior of the demonstrators -- red in the face rage because some small part of their privileges are threatened -- we see just how entitled they feel. Very entitled.

People wonder whether we have a ruling class today and who they would be. The capitalists? The Jews? The Bilderberg group. I say it is the people who *tell* us, day in and day out, in countless ways, that they rule us: the government.

No one who is part of it can me, in terms of proper class analysis, the proletariat.

Lester Hunt said...

... I just realized that in the above comment I didn't integrate the issue of public sector unions into my analysis. But maybe the connection is obvious: PSUs facilitate and accelerate the extraction process. As such, it is in the interests of the lower class, and contrary to the interests of the ruling class, to limit or abolish them. Though I happen to be a member of the ruling class myself, I think that justice here lies on the side of the ruled, as it so often does. They are the downtrodden ones here, the proletariat.

Skip said...

Prof. Hunt - I can only offer as an excuse for my incomprehension that I am an uneducated prole with an obvious deficiency with regards to the English language.

I mistakenly interpreted this paragraph:

"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."

As referring to the people mentioned in this one:

"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."

Because the one immediately followed the other. I apologize for not have comprehended that when you wrote "We are talking about people who have the power to tax: something the rest of us do not have" immediately after two paragraphs about state employees that you were, in fact, not saying that they have the power to tax.

Perhaps you can clear up another thing about which I am confused. To wit:

"The true 'upper' class is the extracting class. This has been true since the days of the Pharaohs. Others must work to support me! I am entitled to it!"

I guess my confusion stems from your notion that state employees essentially tell people like myself, who are employed in the private sector, to support them. I was under the impression that state employees are compensated for their labors and not merely given money in return for nothing.

When a firefighter puts out the flames engulfing a burning house or enters one to extract (ahem) occupants, this is to my mind performing labor which is certainly worthy of compensation. This is why I find your comments perplexing because you don't acknowledge the concept of exchange here ("Others must work to support me! I am entitled to it!") and paint all state employees as simply taking while giving nothing in return.

"I say it is the people who *tell* us, day in and day out, in countless ways, that they rule us: the government.

No one who is part of it can me, in terms of proper class analysis, the proletariat."

Can you also clarify something here, please? (I presume you meant "it can BE" and not "it can me".) What is "proper class analysis"? I at least like to think I understand your argument here. I agree that in a, for want of a better term, mythic sense that government workers collectively constitute an aristocracy. But at a more granular level, this is absurd. I know a janitor who is state employee. Yes, he is in the employ of the government, some members of whom have the ability to levy taxes. But he makes perhaps a bit more than $20,000/year and lives in a trailer that has no hot water. So, to my mind, a "proper" analysis would take into account his vastly different circumstances in contrast to a fellow aristocrat like yourself. To label this man as some kind of privileged elite doesn't make sense to me. He would seem to have more in common in what I would consider to be a class sense with janitors in the private sector or, perhaps more generally, people who have roughly the same education and salary regardless from whence it came than a philosophy professor making a six-figure salary. (Or high five-figure, if the furloughs have been particularly rough. I admit ignorance when it comes to the salaries of you folks.) To say that my acquaintance and you are, for the intents and purposes that matter at least, both aristocrats is like saying that Hitler and Mother Theresa are like two peas in a pod by virtue of them both having been members of the same species.

Skip said...

I suspect that our differences lie in how one defines "justice". It seems that for you it is a very simple and narrow matter that (almost?) exclusively involves a government taxing citizens. End of story. Hence no recognition that state employees actually perform labor in return for their salaries. If one pulls back far enough one can certainly group many people together. But looking at them from such a distance obscures other important differences.

So are you saying the Trilateral Commission doesn't rule us? ;) As far as the "ruling class", I'm not sure. I take your point about this nebulous "government" but, again, in a more proximate sense, to say that an IRS drone who processes returns is part of the ruling class is, I think, disingenuous at best. To me the ruling class are those who make and influence the making of the rules carried out by that drone. I realize that you are an aristocrat but you at least seem to have a conscience bothered by the fact that you take part in that heinous act of coercion that is taking my money via taxes. Still, I don't consider you to be part of the "ruling class". This is because I don't think of the act of ruling as merely being part of a system by which I am taxed.

When a non-governmental entity lobbies a government to use eminent domain so it can acquire land to build a mall, this seems to me to be an example of collusion. The intervention of the government is surely necessary but not sufficient. A private entity's actions are also necessary to throw people out of their homes in such cases. This is an example of citizens lording over other citizens. Those who have money/resources tend to rule those who have less. Has this not been going on for millennia?

Do governments at various levels "rule" over me? To be sure. I am not trying to dispute that. But also ruling over me is my employer, a private entity. It can decide it doesn't want my in its employ at any time and get rid of me which would throw my life into some turmoil and deprive me of my livelihood. (Temporary, I would hope.) So I think a variety of people and institutions rule over me, not simply the government.

Skip said...

Hi Prof. Hunt - I just quickly wanted to add that "Palmer" is an old Internet pseudonym. My real name is John Benninghouse, though friends call me Skip. It's just a bit creepy to be referred to as "Palmer". (Not that it's a bad name, mind you.)

Have a good weekend.

Anonymous said...

"If this be treason make the most of it." Nice allusion to Patrick Henry. He, of course, actually put his life and libterty on the line by supporting the American Revolution. If the revolution had been uncessuful he would undoubtedly been executed by the British.
The next time a philosphy professor turns down tenure (and the accompanying workplace protections that virtually no private sector employees enjoy) at a state university because the professor doesn't want to be one of the "tax consumers" will be the first time that has ever happend. The word you are looking for isn't treason, it is hypocrasy.

Lester Hunt said...

Dear Jerk,

Kudos for your courage in putting your name out there, Anonymous!

I didn't say a word to the effect that it is immoral to be a member of the ruling class. Only that the power to extract wealth by coercion needs to be constrained and not facilitated and accelerated (as it is with public sector unionization).

Please learn some manners. And how to read.

Lester Hunt said...


Yikes! Those are a lot of comments. If they weren't so thoughtful, I wouldn't have published them. When I said "they have the power to tax" I was writing sloppily. When you pointed out that this is misleading at best, I was tempted to revise it, but that seemed Orwellian to me, so I let it stand.

By class analysis I meant the analysis of social, economic, and political events in terms of the dynamic relations between classes. My notions about this have accumulated over the years from reading Austrian econ, mainly Rothbard but also Mises and Hayek.

The first thing to notice about class theories is that they explain things in terms of groups, not individuals. It's consistent with Austrian class analysis that most government workers are decent, hard-working folk who do make a real contribution to society (and earn their pay). The point is entirely about where that pay comes from.

Rather than comment further now, I think I should try to write a new post on this over the weekend.

Also, thanks for introducing yourself!

Matt Olver said...

Prof. Hunt,

Curious where you got your stats for this remark:
"the "right" to collectively bargain with the government doesn't even exist in 20 states. 40% of government workers in the US do not have the "right" to form unions at all."

I want to use this in an argument. Thanks!

Lester Hunt said...


The 40% number I got from the Wikipedia article, "Labor Unions in the United States."

I can't remember where I got the 20 states number, but in looking for it I found an article that says that only 24 states allow collective bargaining by gov't employees. The URL is too long to add here, but the title is "How Much Do Public Workers Earn? The Facts," on

In posters around Madison yesterday I saw this described as a "human right."

A strange human right, that is violated by more than half of the states!

Max said...

Great post! I agree with you.

Matt said...

With regards to:

"As to exempting police and firefighters, I am opposed to that, but it is not hard to see a rationale for it that is less slimy than the one you propose. "

Here is a less-slimy possibility: Do not Republicans tend to fear being viewed as anti-public safety, given that they are generally pro-small-government?

Lester Hunt said...

In other words, they either think or wish to appear to think that the salaries of cops and firefighters ought to be artificially high. That makes sense to me.

By now, there's another possible reason that is pretty obvious. Given the tremendous union brouhaha when they tried to limit collective bargaining rights for *some* government employees, can you imagine what would have happened if they had tried to do it for *all* of them? These guys are politicians, which means they are good at predicting this sort of thing. They probably saw this coming.

Adam Gillette said...

Can you provide some additional comment as to your use of sarcasm quotes around the word "right" when discussing the right to collectively bargain?

From the quotation marks, I understand you to be saying that there is no such right. As support for this, you point to the fact that 20 or more states don't allow public employees to collectively bargain. Setting aside the issue of whether this fact is correct (my research shows that only 5 states don't allow public school teachers to collectively bargain. However, the number of states is irrelevant to my question), are you saying that rights come from the state and that because rights come from the state, the state can take them away? The problem I have with this position (and I recognize it may not be your position) is that if we remove collective bargaining and replace it with other terms, the position seems indefensible. For example, prior to 1964 several states did not allow black people to vote (although they sometimes used restrictions that were not directly based on race but instead had a high correlation with race). I think most people would reject the notion that because those states did not allow blacks to vote, blacks had no "right" to vote. Instead, people would say that the state was wrong in denying the vote. Similarly, most countries do not allow freedom of speech. However, we think of those countries as denying a right rather than saying that the right does not exist because more countries don’t allow free speech than allow it.

The Declaration of Independence speaks of all people being endowed with inalienable rights. I understand this to mean that the right belongs to the individual and cannot be lost by any state’s action. The Declaration gives the non-exhaustive list of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It would seem to me that part of "liberty" is the right to associate with whomever one chooses and to act in concert with those one has a common interest. Because of this, it would seem to me that employees (public or private) would be free to unionize. I suppose the pursuit of happiness might also support such associations.

Anyway, this may be a long way of asking several questions: (1) in your view, where do rights come from; (2) if they come from more than one source, how does one determine what is an inalienable right with an alienable right; (3) why you think collective bargaining rights come from the state; and (4) why does the number states allowing collective bargaining rights matter in the determination as to whether there is a right.

Anyway, no need to publish this if I have misunderstood your position.

Lester Hunt said...

Adam Gillette,

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments.

You raise an important question. I've notice repeatedly that a lot of people involved in this controversy think that the right to collectively bargain is a natural right, like the right not to be murdered or robbed. On my view, that would be like saying that my right to be paid a salary by the U of Wisconsin is a natural right. It is a right, but it comes from my employer. Come to think of it, since my employer is the state, it comes from the state! (Though it would be more accurate to say that it comes from mutual consent between me and the state. I think the same is true of the right to collectively bargain with the state.)

I have to get ready for class, so I don't have time to answer those four questions right now. I'll try to get to them later.

From the above comments you may be able to guess how I would answer some of them.

Lester Hunt said...

To answer your questions:

"1) in your view, where do rights come from?"

Some rights you have just because you are a human being. These include the right to life, a right against battery, and the right to acquire (following certain procedures) and hold property. Others are by mutual agreement. Still others are gift: transferred from the original holder of the right.

"(2) if they come from more than one source, how does one determine what is an inalienable right with an alienable right?"

Boy, that is a big question. But see below re where collective bargaining rights come from.

"(3) why do you think collective bargaining rights come from the state?"

They don't. In my ethic, collective bargaining rights can only come about as a result of mutual, uncoerced agreement between employer and employee. In this country, a lot of people think that employers should be forced to bargain collectively, in order to prevent these profit-driven capitalists from exploiting the weak workers. I don't agree, but I do appreciate the reasoning. However, it does not apply to government workers, who are not working for greedy exploiting capitalists. They are working in the public-spirited government, where they have long had all sorts of rules and regulations to protect them.

Notice that collective bargaining does not follow from freedom of association alone. It means somebody can force your employer to negotiate with the union, instead of the individual employee, whether they want to or not. In my view, such a right cannot be non-contractual.

"(4) why does the number of states allowing collective bargaining rights matter in the determination as to whether there is a right."

First, it seems to me a that in this stage of civilization and moral development there is not going to be a natural right held by the adult population (excluding children, the mentally incompetent, and prisoners), a right like the right to life, that is completely ignored by 20 state governments or 5 state governments. I cannot think of a single example. There is no state that says, eg., that a whole section of its adult population has no property rights.

Second, there is a consistency issue here. I recently found out, for instance, that employees of the federal government have no right to collectively bargain at all. None. Are aghast? Do you hate Obama for not enabling his employees to exercise this right? Why the heck not? Why aren't people picketing him? Why aren't people picketing the states that ignore this God-given right?

Clearly, though people say this is a natural right, they do not act consistently with that claim. What are they actually thinking then? I don't know. They are not expressing themselves very accurately, that's all I am sure of.