Public Sector Unions Are Different

by Conor Friedersdorf

After quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt's claim that "the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," The Economist's Will Wilkinson explains why he was right:

In any productive joint enterprise, there’s a question of how to split the gains from cooperation. Our native sense of fairness tells us that our shares should be roughly proportional to the value of our contributions. But distributive fairness doesn’t automatically prevail. What we actually getwhether we get a fair share or get useddepends on our bargaining power. Individual workers with few options hardly stand a chance against managers backed by massive capital. Workers are most likely to get a cut that reflects the value of their contributions when they band together and bargain collectively...

The thing is, public-sector unions don't work like this. They aren't bargaining against capitalists for a fair cut of the cooperative surplus. They're bargaining against everybody who pays taxes and/or benefits from government spending. 

The question of distribution in democratic politics isn't about splitting up jointly-produced profits. It's about interest groups fighting to grab a bigger share of government revenue while sticking competing groups with the tax bill. Because of the sheer size and relatively uniform interests of the group, public employees constitute a politically powerful bloc with or without unions. As the percentage of the labour force employed by the government rises, the heft of this group only increases.

The limited time I've spent covering public employee unions makes me think that Wilkinson is right when he notes that "a bit of public-employee union busting at the state and municipal level wouldn't leave government workers vulnerable." Beyond civil service protections, they'd enjoy the gains that accrue to people when the narrow interests they care a great deal about are adjudicated by legislative bodies with no corresponding lobby on the other side.

Even if you think that's wrong, it's hard to look at the experience in California without concluding that public employee unions enjoy too much clout under the status quo. And even progressives whose first priority is making government function better ought to recognize that their policy interests don't align with them.