The Battle of Wisconsin


The main problem with Scott Walker's assault on public-sector unions in Wisconsin is not that it's unwarranted, but that it's disingenuous. He says he needs to roll back collective-bargaining rights to close the projected budget deficit, but this is untrue. It's wrong on his own analysis, for heaven's sake. As widely reported, the unions have agreed (under pressure) to the cuts in pay and benefits he was seeking. The case for reducing the unions' power has little or nothing to do with mending Wisconsin's short-term budget.

But it might have something to do with democratic accountability. What Walker is attempting is indeed a power grab, as Paul Krugman says. The question is whether it might be time for elected officials to grab back a little of the power they have surrendered over the years to public-sector unions.

It is important to understand that this is not an all or nothing thing (though you wouldn't know it from the way this debate is being conducted). It is not a question of simply being for or against "the right to collective bargaining". Everything depends on what you mean by that term, and hardly anyone is bothering to say.

Usually, just having a voice in a negotiation does not ensure you will get your way--but the legal rules that say how the negotiation will be run, including how arbitration will work if talks reach an impasse, might do. A seat at the table to talk about pay and benefits is not the same as the right to deduct dues from employees' paychecks. It is not the same as a role in deciding how staff are employed ("demarcation", as the Brits call it), dismissal procedures, control of seniority rules, and other aspects of what many would regard as management. On top of all this, as FDR insisted, the public sector is a special case. It is one thing for unions to check the bargaining power of capitalists, another for them to check the bargaining power of taxpayers and their elected representatives.

The question for states and cities is not whether "collective bargaining" is a basic undeniable right, but how much union power in the public sector is too much. Progressives talk as though it can never be enough--or, at any rate, that no union privilege, once extended, should ever be withdrawn. Conservative supporters of Walker talk as though public-sector unions have no legitimate role at all. To me, the evidence says that the balance needs redressing. Public-sector workers in the US are better paid (if you take benefits into account) and enjoy greater security of employment than their private-sector counterparts. Quit rates from public-sector jobs are about one-third of quit rates in the private sector. Equally important, to my mind at least, is that the unions' quasi-management role in education (especially) has expanded to the point where it is difficult to run schools well, and practically impossible to pursue systemic school reform. So I think the power of public-sector unions needs trimming in states like Wisconsin.

Of course, the public debate is not about that. It's yet another no-compromise, winner-takes-all affair: either Walker will crush the unions (a catastrophe for the rights of working people worldwide), or the unions will triumph (at who knows what cost to individual liberty). With the debate cast in such farcical terms, I find it hard to care who wins.

In the end, public opinion in Wisconsin and beyond will most likely decide the victor, so it's frustrating that the few polls conducted so far are giving mixed signals. This one for the AFL-CIO says the unions are winning; this one says Walker has more support (though Nate Silver has reservations). So far as Obama is concerned, I stand by my initial reaction. It's a mistake for a president to side with unions against taxpayers--though I concede Walker's clumsy tactics might yet vindicate Obama's choice.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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