Thursday, February 24, 2011

Understanding the current union fight

2011-02-24 09:24:48Bona fide Labor unions work within a free-market system, where firms compete for customers. Public works are noncompetitive, however. Workers who belong to public-sector unions conduct their labor negotiations without their employers facing any competitors.

The U.S. Postal Service, for example, has a monopoly over first-class mail delivery; teachers at public schools work for monopolistic employers – student attendance is required, and funds are confiscated through taxation. As the saying goes, public workers have the taxpayers over a barrel – there are no alternatives, and, in most cases, one cannot refuse to deal with these workers.

So public-sector unions are not genuine free-market agents. As such they are able to have their terms met by the taxpaying public basically at the point of a gun. There is nowhere else to go apart from moving out of the state to another, where the same public-sector union monopoly exists.

In a genuine free marketplace, unionization would involve organizing workers in a firm that competes with others for customers, and where the customers are free not to enter into trade. That way, unions could not engage in extortionist practices, making demands that must, by law, be met.

If one's child attends a public school, and teachers decide they want a higher salary or other benefits, the option of leaving the school isn't practical because one will be taxed to pay for it anyway. The same basic setup exists when it comes to any government function and unions. So, for these folks to unionize is quite unjust.

Indeed, the rationale behind public works is not the same as behind private enterprises. In private business, all parties involved are seeking the best deal they can get, and bargaining occurs to bring this about. Working for government, however, is supposed to amount to public service, something done not for profit but as a commitment to the public good or interest. Anyone who views working for government as the same as private enterprise either is suffering from a misconception or is perpetrating a hoax.

Accordingly, all the people who work for governments, which are supported through confiscatory taxation, are, strictly speaking, ineligible for unionization.

Public work in contrast to private business is something legally required and paid for involuntarily. So, unlike going to the grocery store, of which there can be several in a neighborhood and which customers can actually avoid if they choose to, in the case of public services, citizens are not free to deal with others or walk away from the providers.

Clearly, then, the original idea of organizing labor into unions does not fit the public-service situation. Unfortunately, this is rarely kept in mind. Thus, when, in Wisconsin, or anywhere else for that matter, the benefits negotiated from government that public employees insist on retaining were the result of a very special deal. Public policy imposed their services on the citizenry, and now the citizenry is no longer able to come up with the loot previously extracted from them.

Yet, because much of the population – egged on by people who very likely would just as soon impose government employment on everyone in every line of work (just check out Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times on Feb. 21) – has sympathy for the typical laborer or worker dealing with powerful firms in a free market, the public sector unions are getting a pass in their current conflict with their employers.

This situation needs to be seriously reexamined. It may, indeed, imply that the entire idea of public service, let alone public-service unionization, is misguided.

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