Collective Bullying: The Social Injustice of Public-Sector Unions


This week at Common Sense Concept, I comment on the recent goings on in Wisconsin, focusing specifically on what I call the social injustice of collective bargaining in the public sector.

Here’s an excerpt:

The most dizzying of the spin has been the notion that public workers are entitled to a “right to collective bargaining” — a claim made so frequently and with such conviction that one would assume the taxpayers were granted some bargaining powers of their own.

But alas, although politicians began to invent such rights in the 1950s, the merits of these unique privileges have been highly contested, even by the likes of pro-union leaders like FDR and George Meany.

If you think that “social justice” is an odd way to approach the issue, I am somewhat sympathetic. (What doesn’t constitute social justice nowadays?) But as long as folks are tossing the label around about fake exploitation (as they often do), I thought I should at least be entitled to use it about the real stuff:

Framing my argument in terms of “social justice” will surely strike the pro-public-union crowd as odd. After all, they are the ones scolding the rich for “excess” and comparing Wisconsin teachers to third-world sweat-shop workers (need a laugh?). But when one begins to understand the unfair advantages that public-sector unions hold over the rest of the citizenry, such moping and mourning is quickly revealed to be the posturing Phariseesm that it is.

After examining the ins and outs of various public-sector advantages (relying heavily on Yuval Levin), I conclude that the institutionalized, coercive privileges held by public-sector unions are far more troublesome than their bloated line-item status in the budget:

Governor Walker claims that his actions are fundamentally about the budget, but based on the reactions from the unions (“It’s not about the money!”), it appears that the real gem they treasure is their coercive “right” to collectively bargain over the funds of the private citizens they are supposed to serve — a privilege of unfair and exploitative advantage.

To read the full post, click here.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Anon

    A computation:
    Let’s assume, for argument, that if a young student wasn’t in school that the student would need babysitting. I’m sure you agree that parents out working, leveraging their competitive advantage while letting a babysitter leverage his/her competitive advantage, is best for the economy and so the assumption is reasonable. Let’s also say that a teacher would handle a class of around 25 students, on average, for 6 hours per day, for 180 days out of the year, so that’s what the babysitter would need to handle. Let’s also say that a babysitter would make a pittance, $3/hr for each child.
    Then the daily cost of babysitting would be $3/hr/student*25students * 6hrs/day * 180 days/yr=$81,000/yr for babysitting that cohort of children. After a non-scientific two-second cursory Google search, I found that the average teacher salary in Wisconsin is about $46,000 (and I’m not sure what the benefits add to that salary, but certainly not another $35,000).

    So, even if you just consider teachers babysitters, how is the current situation fiscally irresponsible? This is relevant to the bargaining issue, since the bargaining has led to salaries at their current level, which are less than what it would cost to pay to have have the same cohort of children babaysat instead of going to school. I’d say we’re still getting a good deal since the children are getting some education as well.

    And this is at a $3/hr babysitting rate. Imagine if we had to pay the babysitters minimum wage… that would cost just over $195,000/yr for the same cohort of students.

    I was at first skeptical about multiplying directly by the number of students in the class, since a classroom likely experiences economies of scale in that the teacher isn’t watching each and every student all the time. But, if you think that parents of each student would have to pay for students individually if they were in babysitting, the computation seems much more reasonable.

    I certainly think that unions often push much further for wages, benefits, etc than what is actually necessary and curbing some of those excesses would be good. So, asking the question about how much the bargaining rights should be curtailed is reasonable and prudent. But, advocating the elimination of union bargaining rights completely seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Ideally we wouldn’t need them – employers and employees would treat each other with respect and manage to agree on things individually and amicably. Reality and history beg to differ.

    You believe that a right to the safety of your property exists. That wasn’t always the case, and I’m sure someone in the past argued about property rights in the same way you’re arguing about bargaining rights.

  • Pingback: Healthy Conor Jackson ready to tackle backup role for A's

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    We can play with the numbers a lot. There’s a common number out there of $51,000 for teachers (http://politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2011/feb/23/eric-bolling/fox-business-news-eric-bolling-says-wisconsin-teac/). At a 180-day work day, that’s really $68,000 per year. If they’re health benefits are like mine, there is $20,000 extra on top of that (I pay 25% of the cost, they will not have to pay %12ish).

    In the end, the cost itself is wishy-washy. The point of all of this is that what you think is reasonable and prudent is different than what other people think is reasonable and prudent. (Welcome to economics!) We can’t eliminate making some choices about what is and what isn’t, but we can certainly minimize the chances for centralized authorities or blocs (i.e. unions) to dictate what the rest of us shall consider reasonable. Public employees are make it difficult enough to determine the best market price. Adding collective bargaining makes that even more difficult.

    In short, I think many people’s response to your numbers (and mine), would be: “Who cares”?

    My argument is fundamentally about the bargaining rights themselves in the *public sector,* particularly on benefits and pensions. I’m all for getting rid of them on wages in the public sector, but this bill doesn’t touch that. Only 26% of states have such rights for public employees.

    I don’t think it is economically prudent or morally preferable in *principle* (not fact) that public “servants” turn into manipulative coercers of the taxpayer, when such an advantage is not necessary.

    I have my own issues with private sector unions, but this column does not aim at them. They have a history of harsh working conditions, etc. Show me one public-sector union that does, in a coal-mining sort of way.

    There never has been a reason for such “rights” other than mere political strategy (a clever one indeed…thanks JFK). But what began as merely political has grown into a monster of entitlement.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    We can play with the numbers a lot. There’s a common number out there of $51,000 for teachers (http://politifact.com/truth-o-…/). At a 180-day work day, that’s really $68,000 per year. If their health benefits are like mine, there is $20,000 extra on top of that (I pay 25% of the cost; they will not have to pay %12ish).

    In the end, the cost itself is wishy-washy. The point of all of this is that what you think is reasonable and prudent is different than what other people think is reasonable and prudent. (Welcome to economics!) We can’t eliminate making some choices about what is and what isn’t so from the top down, but we can certainly minimize the chances for centralized authorities or blocs (i.e. unions) to dictate what the rest of us shall consider reasonable. Having public employees makes it difficult enough to determine the best market price. Adding unionization AND collective bargaining makes that even more difficult.

    In short, I think many people’s response to your numbers (and mine), would be: “Who cares?”

    My argument is fundamentally about the bargaining rights themselves in the *public sector,* particularly on benefits and pensions. I’m all for getting rid of them on wages as well, but this bill doesn’t touch that. Only 26% of states have such “rights” for public employees.

    But as you say, the fact they don’t exist isn’t an argument against them. For reasons stated above and in my article, I don’t think it is economically prudent or morally preferable in *principle* (not fact) that public “servants” turn into manipulative coercers of the taxpayer, when such an advantage is not necessary, helpful, nor (often times) just.

    I have my own issues with private sector unions, but this column does not aim at them. They have a history of harsh working conditions, etc. Show me one public-sector union that does, in a coal-mining sort of way.
    There never has been a reason for such “rights” other than mere political strategy (a clever one indeed…thanks JFK). But what began as merely political has grown into a monster of entitlement.

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/41226565954179074 Joseph Sunde

    My thoughts on Wisconsin, public-sector unions, and collective bullying: http://bt.io/Gjrf #tcot #tlot

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/41243393128534016 Remnant Culture

    Comment re: collective bullying: "What began as merely political has grown into a monster of entitlement." http://bit.ly/hQAlbP

  • Anon

    Back on the numbers for a second… $51,000 is not “really $68,000.” It’s $51,000. I know what you’re doing, saying if they worked a “full” year that they’d make more money. I’d argue that if teachers worked more days, they’d most likely get paid the same and just work more days. You might argue different. Very speculative, and non-helpful. It’s like saying road construction workers in northern MN “really” make more than their wages, if only they’d work a “full” year.

    As for why one should care about the numbers, your argument (at least in part) is that the public unions are manipulative and exploitative of taxpayers to larger extent than you think they should be. I definitely agree that unions manipulate; their stated purpose is to bargain over employment-related concerns, which is manipulating the situation. However, if you agree that teachers get paid at the level of babysitters (and both our numbers basically agreed on this), I don’t see how there’s any excessive manipulation/coercion going on in the context of wages and benefits. I guess my argument is that, if you find the nearest occupation to what a teacher is doing, you find that they’d cost the same amount. Since we’re obviously getting more out of teachers than babysitting (however effective you think the school systems are, which is certainly debatable), the unions are bargaining for reasonable wages. As you said, with them being public employees the market rate is hard to determine, so bargaining will have to happen somehow. Unions in the case of wages, benefits, etc, don’t seem to be a method that’s producing any particular excesses.

    Now, on the topic of monster of entitlement, that we can definitely agree on once we move away from wages. I have a friend who was a high school teacher at one point. He tells the story of when another teacher was out, and my friend told the school that he was more than willing to temporarily take on the extra class without pay, to make sure the students were still learning from a full time teacher. Instead, the union refused his amazingly reasonable offer and brought in a substitute. Not only did the students learn less from the sub, but the union literally cost the school more money for no good reason. Bad all the way around.

    So, where I expect we find agreement is on issues like curbing situations similar to the substitute story, and on making it easier to get rid of bad teachers. That’s the biggest problem I’ve been able to see with the unions – they make it so hard for schools to get rid of bad/underperforming teachers, and also to compensate good teachers for doing a good job. I used to be of the opinion that we “just need to pay teachers more” and that would help education. I’m no longer near there – I still think we need to pay GOOD teachers more, but getting rid of bad teachers first would probably be more helpful and cost less in the short run.

    In continuing to ponder, I think I’d be more ok with eliminating bargaining rights if they put it to a vote of the people. I’m not convinced that, on issues like this, the positions politicians run on make their future actions very clear. You see this with Presidents all the time – during the campaign they vaguely say they’ll do something and when it comes to actually fulfilling that campaign issue it looks a lot different than what both supporters and opposition thought would happen. On an issue like bargaining “rights” it make more sense to me to put it to a vote of the people. Especially when it’s so obvious that a shuffling of the political deck in Wisconsin would totally change the dynamics (ie, Dem instead of Rep governor), and when the issue could mean huge changes for the people involved. I definitely don’t think referendums should be used willy nilly (e.g., California’s mess, and the fact that we elect representatives to… represent us), but this seems like a very appropriate situation to see directly if the taxpayers of Wisconsin are willing to support the “right” to collective bargaining knowing that it could increase taxes for them. I would think you would support this, as someone who likes fewer choices made from the top down. As for the rest of the pay agreements, those should be passed. Everyone’s agreed on them, and they make good fiscal sense.

    I’m glad you posted this. It’s certainly been helpful for me in honing in on the particulars of what I think is good and bad about unions, in particular teachers’ unions. More or less, I think I fall on the side of eliminating particularly egregious issues like retaining bad teachers that the unions cause, rather than just tossing out the ability to bargain all together.

    “I don’t think it is economically prudent or morally preferable in *principle* (not fact)[...]”
    As a side note, I’ve noticed that you like to do this a lot, say that you’re arguing something in principle to try and add to your point about something in practice. Like I said before, I agree that in principle it would be great to not need the coercion of a union. But we’re not talking strictly about principle here, we’re dealing with particular applications in reality of principle. It’s like the old example from physics, that in principle a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same rate. However, once you start applying the principle to reality, it’s obvious that the principle isn’t correct – we’ve forgotten about air resistance in the model, for example. Back to economics: I just flat out don’t believe in strictly applying of libertarian economics to reality (however much I’m in agreement than, in principle, it’s probably the best system we’ve currently come up with). In fact, strictly applying *any* economic theory is more likely to be foolish and detrimental. Makes me think of the spherical cow joke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_cow. Econ is certainly more applied than theoretical physics but I think the field is currently in the “spherical cow” stage, where the models seem sophisticated but still are not predictive enough to be able to be applied directly.

  • Anon

    I think this comment got in the system when the site had glitched, so I thought I’d post again to see if you had any further comments. I was enjoying this discussion line.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    Regarding my point on $51K vs. $68K, I don’t get how it is any less speculative than your opposing argument, which puts your number below mine. My whole point was that these matters are indeed speculative — at least from the amount of data I have at my fingertips (and my leisure).

    As far as your babysitter example. I simply don’t think it works. Breaking down the work involved, in my opinion, is not as simple as dividing up teachers per students and all of a sudden claiming that it’s the same wage. This is far too simplistic of a reduction and involves *lots* of speculation. Also, perhaps part of my skeptism is because my wife has “professional” babysitter experience (3 different nanny jobs), one of which was at a higher-than-normal wage. If she had a teacher’s license (a consideration she dealt with — she opted for child psych), I’m pretty sure I know what the best option would be (the benefits of teaching would be 10s of thousands of dollars, which you didn’t counter. As I mentioned earlier, my private health care amounts to about $20,000 in company contribution, and that’s with me paying 25%. I can only imagine if the government took on the rest of that plus pension. Again, I think all of this has a big speculative and anecdotal element, which we could certainly dig deeper on, if I was that type of numbers-obsessed guy.

    Again, regardless of how we manipulate the numbers, its all pointless in the end (in my opinion) because its not so “obvious” about where the price should absolutely be or whether it is or isn’t unjustified. We can talk about what’s reasonable and what isn’t on *our* terms (and as we can see, we’re bound to disagree), so I would argue the market needs to decide if we’re going to find the *best* option (though not the perfect one, of course). Getting rid of unions in the public sector gets us closer, but nowhere near where I’d prefer (*cough* privatization *cough*…a discussion for another day!)

    Regarding the rest, I don’t have anything in particular add and appreciate your comments.

    Ok, one more thing to add (ha!): By saying “in principle, not fact” I was mainly referring to the moral piece, which is more the thrust of my article (a clumsy sentence, I’ll admit), but I do believe libertarian principles, when enacted, do lead to the best factual outcomes. I was simply making it clear that the particular argument in that paragraph was separate from the other numerical ones. (This clarification obviously doesn’t alter our disagreement; it just seeks to clarify).

    I’m all for having a dose of realism in our policy analysis, but I simply believe that libertarian policy approaches exhibit the largest dose of that realism. It assumes and admits that the market makes mistakes and we’re in for a bumpy ride (though not a whip-lash sort of bump). Libertarian dares us to jump on that ride boldly, and I think the results tend to come pretty close to where they’re predicted (more than any other system). That is, of course, where “pure” libertarian actually gets close to getting tried out…not a common thing. The “application” piece, in my opinion, comes down to where we prefer the balance of society to be. We can all look at the same outcome and disagree on whether its positive or negative (liberty vs. security preferences, etc.)

    That said, I don’t think libertarian theory is perfect by any means in practical application, or in principle (it’s an earthly system, cf. my blog’s thesis). As far as my own common emphasis, I stick to principle mainly because it interests me. Also, I get bored with policy-wonk stuff after a while. ☺

    That’s a bit of rambling blathering, but hopefully its an adequate enough response. Thanks for the engagement.

  • Anonymous

    Dollars and cents as they pertain to public sector unions is certainly not the point. The true “social justice” factor in this discussion is this: Where is the justice for the taxpayer who is forced to pay ever increasing government employee pensions and health care benefits? Who represents the taxpayer in the collective bargaining with the unions?
    There are now more union represented employees working for the government than in the private sector. The mere fact that the government is the largest employer in America is nauseating. Every time a new department is created, (the health care bill alone added over 100 sub-departments), the taxpayer is forced to foot the bill for even more government employee pensions and benefits. Again, who represents the taxpayer in this? Looking at the money trail, it is not our “representatives” in Congress, who fill their election campaign war chests with union donations. Every time the teachers’ union goes on strike, who foots the bill?
    The information that the Wisconsin state union employees paid nothing into their own pensions and almost nothing into their health care, would not have come under public scrutiny if the governor hadn’t done what he did. The fact that those employees get to retire at age 55, while all of us have to wait until 70 for full benefits (if there are still any), is another slap at the taxpayer. Social justice has nothing to do with public sector unions. They should never have been allowed as FDR said.
    Those that have become teachers solely for the benefits that their union brokered job provides, should never have become teachers in the first place. Their passion is not for teaching. Those that quote nonsense about child labor, and sweat shops have no place in the discussion of public sector unions. The private sector union busloads of protesters have no say in the discussion.
    The fact that the teachers do not work 12 months out of the year is a side issue, having more to do with cultural attitudes about children/family activities and summertime. The fact that more and more private, religious based, and home schools are growing at an astronomical rate, shows the public disgust with the quality of public education. The fact that more and more money is being thrown at the schools and the results are getting worse and worse, says as much about the system as it does the teachers’ union. Social justice in this case should apply to the fact that the taxpayer is not getting his or her money’s worth from the system, and that should be remedied. If it requires getting rid of bad teachers and administrators, all the better for the schools. Since it is almost an axiom that anything the government does is both inefficient and more costly than what could be done in the private sector, no one should be surprised that those that squeal the loudest about loss of pay or benefits are the very ones that deserve them the least.

  • Pingback: Year in Review: Top 10 Posts of 2011 « Remnant Culture

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/157229410968272898 Remnant Culture

    Our #5 most popular post of 2011: Collective Bullying: The Social Injustice of Public-Sector Unions http://t.co/p9Mv9BcP

  • http://twitter.com/rjmoeller/status/157243945015975936 RJ Moeller

    Our #5 most popular post of 2011: Collective Bullying: The Social Injustice of Public-Sector Unions http://t.co/p9Mv9BcP

  • Pingback: meisterstuck pens