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Debate: Collective bargaining rights for public unions

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Background and context

Collective bargaining is a means by which employees, in the private and often in the public sector, can collectively bargain with their employer in order to seek better pay and working conditions. Long taken for granted as appropriate and necessary in the private sector, collective bargaining rights have been at the center of debate in regards to public employees and unions.
Wisconsin became the center of this debate in early 2011 when governor Scott Walker pushed to end collective bargaining rights for public union workers. He and other opponents of collective bargaining, often claim that ending the practice is a necessary means of helping cut costs and budget deficits. They argue that collective bargaining gives unions too much power and so results in them being able to have their way in securing higher wages and benefits. Yet, others argue that there is no inherent link between collective bargaining and cutting costs; that the mere right to argue one's case doesn't mean that the governor and other politicians must agree and grant the benefits requested. Advocates argue that having a voice at the bargaining is so fundamentally important to public employees that it should be considered a fundamental right. And, indeed, international law provides significant support for considering collective bargaining such a right. These and other arguments are outlined below.
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Rights: Is collective bargaining a right?

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Pro

  • Collective bargaining is a fundamental human right. Michael Zimmer. "Collective Bargaining as a Human Right." Michael Zimmer.org. February 20th, 2011: "I wanted to use this space to give credence to the argument that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right, recognized internationally in various conventions, constitutions, and courts. For example, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organise trade unions as a fundamental human right, while item 2(a) of the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the 'freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining' as an essential right of all workers. Consider the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution, which guarantees that 'Every trade union, employers’ organisation and employer has the right to engage in collective bargaining.'"
  • Public employees have a right to be heard at bargaining table. Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin: "The same voices that teach our young people and protect our public institutions have a right to be heard at the bargaining table."[1]


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Con

  • Collective bargaining is a privilege, not a right A federal district court in North Carolina defended the states laws against public sector union bargaining: "All citizens have the right to associate in groups to advocate their special interests to the government. It is something entirely different to grant any one interest group special status and access to the decision-making process."[2]
"Guess What: There is no ‘right’ to collective bargaining." Labor Union Report. February 24th, 2011: "Collective bargaining distorts and corrupts democratic government. Collective bargaining is a process for employer-employee relations that was designed for the private sector. This process served as the model for the development of public-sector collective bargaining without taking into account the fundamental differences between the two sectors."
  • Rights cannot violate other rights One person's rights cannot be in conflict with another person's rights, nor can the rights of persons acting in a group violate the rights of person's acting in another group. Although every worker has the legal right to speak, no employer has the legal or moral obligation to listen. Although every citizen in the U.S. has the legal right to petition government, no government representative has the legal or moral obligation to implement the request. Although every person has the legal and moral right to associate, no person has the moral right to do whatever they want while associating. Government representatives have the same rights as public workers. They have the right to say "no" to requests for increases in financial compensation or changes in working conditions. Public workers also have the right to strike and/or quit.
  • Government should never make contracts with political groups When government makes a contract with any group it helps to ensure the existence of that group. Government should not support (nor oppose) groups that engage in political activity. If the government makes a contract with a group, then that group must be prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates, as well as lobbying.
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Democracy: Is collective bargaining consistent with democratic processes?

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Pro

  • Collective bargaining balances power between employer, employee. There should be a balance of power between employer and employee, and without collective bargaining, the individual employee is powerless to bargain with their employer for better pay and working conditions.
  • Most advanced democratic countries honor public union bargaining. "US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011: "Most major advanced democratic countries honor collective bargaining rights of public employees. For example, all EU countries allow public sector workers to bargain collectively. In a 2008 case, the European Court of Human Rights found that Turkey's restrictions on public employee bargaining rights violated the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the province of British Columbia to restore collective bargaining agreements nullified by legislation."
  • Undemocratic states are most likely to restrict public bargaining. "US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011: "many undemocratic countries restrict or prohibit collective bargaining by public employees. For example, the Egyptian government has prohibited public sector collective bargaining. It allowed public employee unions to exist, but in name only, favoring government-controlled unions and quashing any attempt to bargain collectively."
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Con

  • Public unions want to bargain with same candidates they help elect Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: "When they have collective bargaining in Wisconsin, on one side of the table there's state employee unions or the local employee unions. On the other side of the table are politicians that they paid for the election of those politicians. Now, who represents the taxpayers in that negotiation? Well, actually, nobody."[3]
  • Taxpayers aren't at table where unions/politicians bargain. Taxpayers are the ones paying for the salaries and benefits of public employees, but they are not at the table when unions and politicians bargain for benefits that put larger burdens on them. This is fundamentally unfair to taxpayers, and the dynamic can only be eliminated by getting rid of collective bargaining.
  • Collective bargaining gives public unions unequal power David Crane. "Should public employees have collective bargaining?" SF Gate. February 27th, 2011: "in 1962 the federal government gave collective bargaining rights to federal employees, and in 1977 California followed suit. However, because state employees already had civil service protections, collective bargaining wasn't needed to equalize their power with employers' power. As a result, collective bargaining for public employees in California changed the balance of power and - most importantly - gave public employees power over their compensation and benefits. [...] Collective bargaining is a good thing when it's needed to equalize power, but when public employees already have that equality because of civil service protections, collective bargaining in the public sector serves to reduce benefits for citizens and to raise costs for taxpayers. Citizens and taxpayers should consider this as they watch events unfold in Madison."
  • Democratic leaders used to oppose collective bargaining for public unions. Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, opposed collective bargaining for the public sector. They didn't believe that collective bargaining rights belonged in the public sector, although they did strongly advocate for it in the private sector. They recognized the difference between the two things. And, being Democratic leaders, it is not possible to claim that they did not have concern for the working class and appropriate working conditions and pay for public and private employees.
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Pay: Are public employees overpaid?

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Pro

  • Collective bargaining doesn't guarantee results sought. "US: Honor Public Workers’ Bargaining Rights." Human Rights Watch. February 25th, 2011: "Having the right to bargain collectively does not guarantee outcomes sought by workers and their unions. Nor does it mean that cost savings cannot be achieved. Rather workers' representatives and representatives of employers, whether public or private, have a right to bargain hard for their interests."
  • Union employee benefits can be cut without denying bargaining rights. Michael Bloomberg. Limit Pay, Not Unions." New York Times. February 27th, 2011: "Across the country, taxpayers are providing pensions, benefits and job security protections for public workers that almost no one in the private sector enjoys. Correcting this imbalance is not easy, but in a growing number of states, budget deficits are being used to justify efforts to scale back not only labor costs, but labor rights. [...] the problem is not unions expressing those rights; it is governments failing to adapt to the times and act in a fiscally responsible manner. If contract terms or labor laws from years past no longer make sense, we the people should renegotiate — or legislate — changes. Benefits agreed to 35 years ago that now are unaffordable should be reduced. Similarly, work rules that made sense 70 years ago but are now antiquated should be changed."


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Con

  • Public employees overpaid, shouldn't have bargaining rights Andrew G. Biggs. "Why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Is Right About Collective Bargaining." US News. February 25th, 2011: "But whether we should limit public sector pay and benefits and public employees' right to collectively bargain for them hinges on whether government employees are overpaid to begin with. That remains an open debate, depending upon how the question is asked and which employees are analyzed. At the federal level, there is little doubt among academic economists that salaries are higher than those paid to private workers with similar education and experience—the 1999 Handbook of Labor Economics lists a number of peer-reviewed studies showing a salary premium of 10-20 percent. At the state and local level, salaries tend to be somewhat lower, but benefits and job security usually make up the difference. A recent raft of studies from left-leaning think tanks argue that state and local employees are underpaid even after benefits are considered, but these studies generally undercount government pension benefits and omit often-generous retiree health coverage."
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Public opinion: Where does public opinion stand?

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Pro


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Con

  • "Opposition" to taking away collective bargaining based on bad polling. Tim Kane. "Are collective bargaining rights really that great?" Christian Science Monitor. February 25th, 2011: "Consider the phrasing of this Gallup poll (which was the top story in yesterday's USA Today). Would you favor or oppose a law in your state taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers union? Yikes. Even a cold-hearted economist like me isn't in favor of TAKING AWAY stuff from others. Let alone taking away their RIGHTS. That sounds mean, which is why 61 percent of respondents were opposed. No doubt, the response would be different if the question involved trade-offs, which is what real-world choices are about. For example: Would you favor a law in your state ending collective bargaining for public-sector workers or higher taxes on your children over the next few decades?"


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Pro/con sources

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