Unions Aren’t Always Great, But Collective Bargaining Is

Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill that would weaken public sector collective bargaining rights and reduce public employee benefits. He argues that these measures are necessary to balance the state budget.

Let’s separate those two things: collective bargaining rights and balancing the state budget. Per the Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin’s public sector unions have stated that they are willing to negotiate decreased benefits:

Top leaders of two of Wisconsin’s largest public employee unions announced they are willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker’s plan, but will not accept the loss of collective bargaining rights.

I am emphatically not an uncritical supporter of unions, but I believe collective bargaining is an essential component of American civic life.

Let’s get the “cons” of unions out of the way. I acknowledge that unions can sometimes be too effective for their own good.

I’ve worked with public sector employees who deserved to be fired, but were untouchable due to their seniority or management’s unwillingness to tangle with the union to fire them. Furthermore, the “first in, first out” lay-off order protected by many unions ensures that employee seniority is valued over job performance. Finally, the well-documented struggle of many school districts to fire incompetent teachers demonstrates that unions can be uncritically protective of their members.

In all of these examples, the interests of taxpayers in getting good value for their tax dollars suffer when unions are over-powerful in protecting their members. But none of these are structural problems with the unions; they’re problems that occur when unions are mismanaged or union power is unchecked.

Collective Bargaining Creates a Balanced America

Our country values individual freedom and free speech. It’s in the Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Unions are an organization of individual workers expressing their first amendment rights in order to negotiate for safe and reasonable working conditions, adequate pay and workers’ compensation systems.

In the public sector, without a union-protected civil service, it would be easy for elected officials to gut the civil service of experienced and effective employees in favor of political cronies. This is not in the taxpayer’s interest, or in the interest of free speech.

In the private sector, unions are critical for people who work in dangerous professions and in countries without strong worker safety regulations. Even professional athletes’ unions, which are easy to laugh at when they’re negotiating for six figure minimum wages, are protecting disparate individuals’ right to a safe workplace when advocating for football players’ safety in light of the lasting negative effects of repetitive head injuries.

Negotiated agreements between unions and companies/governments create common goals as large institutions fulfill their imperative to govern or make money: Economic productivity, strong civil services and safe, adequately compensated jobs.

Unions affirm individual freedom by giving a voice to individual workers when engaging with large institutions. Not every industry needs a union, and not every person needs a union. But when a group of individuals chooses to form an organization promoting their individual rights, they’re asserting their voice and their right to negotiate in their common interests.


The struggle between unions and “big business” (or government) is archetypal, and the showdown in Wisconsin illuminates our inability to have this discussion civilly. But weakening public sector employees’ right to organize doesn’t save money in the state’s budget right now – it just makes it easier to pay public employees less in the long term.

Conflating a budget discussion with a discussion of workers’ rights needlessly polarizes the issue of collective bargaining and pollutes the negotiation of compromises with public sector unions. Governor Walker could achieve civil discourse by respecting the rights of individuals to organize, and by engaging with these organizations to negotiate budget compromises.

If I were his adviser, I’d tell Governor Walker to take collective bargaining off the table. He’s not going to meet his goal of balancing the budget by busting unions.


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