Public Unions, Collective Bargaining, and Equality Among Organizations

With the ongoing fight in Wisconsin between public employee unions and Governor Scott Walker, one question has been asked a great deal is “should public employee unions have the right to collectively bargain at all?”  I think it’s important, then, to break down this debate into its component parts.

Some argue that since the salaries of these public employees are payed by tax revenues, a union bargaining for a better contract is akin to a monopolistic rate hike in which the people collecting the payments for services (again, government) have the legal right to force customers to pay the bill, no matter how high the cost.  Since this funding comes from taxpayers and is part of the governmental budget, some, like FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, are opposed to taxation of the people being used to pay for higher salaries bargained for by public employee unions.  This stance would be what prompted him, in an interview with CNBC’s Lori Ann LaRocco, to say to these unions “Why are you trying to balance the budget on my back? … These are the guys living high off the fat of the taxpayers hog.” Others claim that because unions tend to support Democratic candidates, “public employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.” And the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation released a video explaining that public unions operate as a massive lobby to elect officials that will negotiate higher salaries for their members, effectively bargaining for higher taxes.

Proponents of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions, meanwhile, hold that all employees, regardless of the identity of their employer, should have the same rights as any other workers.  They see stripping these rights from public employee unions as both immoral and illegal, as well as being obvious discrimination.

As a union supporter, a former history teacher (as well a former IBEW member and former Teamster), I’d bet you can guess which side of that argument I’m on.

So the argument is that a union shouldn’t be allowed to use its numbers and vast financial resources to campaign for elected officials, lobby for laws, bargain for higher pay, or any of that because they are paid from the public coffers as taxpayer expense.  Okay, I get that.  Yes, public employees are paid using tax dollars.  So are an awful lot of private employees.  Haliburton, KBR, Blackwater, Lockheed Martin, and any number of other private contractors hired by the government to do a wide variety of jobs.  I suspect that when these companies are angling for a government contract, they negotiate a contract with the intent of gaining as much financial compensation as possible.  In fact, in the case of companies with a corporate charter, they don’t have a choice.  They are bound by their charters to always seek to maximize their profits.  So, does Dick Armey have a problem with Haliburton’s no-bid contract with the federal government with a cost-plus pricing scale that incentivizes inefficiency?  Of course not, because his friends (Dick Cheney and the like) have made a damned fortune from it.  If a corporation – a group of people who have paid to be vested in an organization that will work to maximize their profits – is allowed to negotiate contracts with government, why can’t unions?  Sounds like discrimination to me.

But unions use their influence to campaign for people who will give them more lucrative contracts, don’t they?  Isn’t that corrupt?  I don’t know, what would you call it when (not to beat a dead horse, but it’s just too juicy an example) Dick Cheney, as a former executive at Haliburton, used his influence to help his old company (in which he was still heavily invested) gain such a lucrative contract as Iraq’s entire rebuilding?  That, too, would be bargaining for higher taxes, if the people who negotiated for the government had any interest in balancing the budget.

Look, it’s this simple.  Right-wing nut-jobs like Scott Walker and the rest of his anti-worker cohorts have to face the fact that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  A union is just like a corporation.  It’s a group of people who have invested in an organization with the intent of using that organization to maximize members’ profits.  If a corporation is allowed, then a union must then also be allowed.  Double-edged swords can cut deep, can’t they?

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