A Philosopher's Blog

Walker & Collective Bargaining

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2011
Great Seal of the state of Wisconsin

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Wisconsin, like many states, is facing budgetary problems. Governor Walker pledged that he would address these problems and did so by getting state employees to agree to various cost saving measures. However, he wants to go beyond this by eliminating collective bargaining.

Obviously enough, eliminating collective bargaining does not itself directly save money for the state. There is, after all, no collective bargaining expenditure that the state has to make.

It could, of course, be argued that collective bargaining can lead to situations in which the state has to pay out more money. For example, employees might push for cost of living increases and get them.

It could also be argued that an end to collective bargaining would weaken the position of state employees and thus make it far easier to put cost cutting measures in place. To use an analogy, this would be on par with breaking up an army (or a corporation) and forcing every former soldier (or corporate executive)  to fight on his/her own against an organized opponent. This could also create savings by encouraging state employees who can find jobs elsewhere to leave their state jobs (or even the state). Naturally, people who favor collective bargaining consider this a key reason as to why it is important. After all, it provides state employees with a collective voice and makes it harder for them to be pushed around or treated unfairly.

Naturally, there are legitimate concerns about the misuse of collective bargaining. After all, just as corporations sometimes misuse their influence to gain at the expense of others, unions sometimes also use their power to acquire gains at the expense of others. However, this is not an inherent flaw in organizations-they need not behave in ways that are detrimental to the public good.

As such, collective bargaining should no more be eliminated than corporations or other organizations should be eliminated. Rather, the content of what is being bargained for is what should be assessed.




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24 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on February 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    This might sound strange, but I’m in favor of national labor unions for every sector of private industry, and no unions anywhere in the public sector.

    The reasoning for the private sector is that the employer/employee relationship needs to be equal in order to prevent abuse, hence since an employer has a unified voice, the employees require the same.

    The public sector, though, should not operate like a capitalist market; a normal business can simply decline to provide a service if it’s not profitable for it to do so, whereas the government must provide its services. Hence, the idea is the government pays its employees what it can afford in light of its other expenses, no more and no less — I don’t see room for bargaining in this.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 24, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      Interestingly, if we accept the view that the government is inefficient, corrupt and so on, then we would certainly want to have unions for state employees to protect them from the bad government that we are so often warned about by the Republicans and others.

      As a state worker (faculty at a public university), I can attest to the fact that some of the folks in charge would be quite happy to shameless exploit us and strip away as many benefits as possible. Be it private or public sectors, you can count on bureaucrats and management to generally act in similar ways. Since the folks in charge have power, the workers need a means to balance that power.

      Ideally the state would pay what it can afford, but the tendency is for the folks who control the money to pay themselves more than we can afford and try to pay others as little as possible. There are, of course, exceptions in which those with the power act justly and fairly. Sometimes they ride unicorns to work. 🙂

      • Asur said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm

        So, essentially, you feel that public sector unions are necessary in order to counterbalance administrative corruption and inefficiency?

        The system in place for dealing with bad public administration is voter pressure. How is this inadequate?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 25, 2011 at 10:41 am

          Unfortunately, voter pressure does not seem to be adequate to ensure that the legitimate rights of public employees are not violated. In some cases, the people making the choices “on the ground” are not elected officials and hence are not really subject to voter pressure. Also, as Mill argued, we all need protection against the tyranny of the majority (or those who get themselves accepted as the majority).

          • Asur said, on February 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

            “In some cases, the people making the choices “on the ground” are not elected officials and hence are not really subject to voter pressure. Also, as Mill argued, we all need protection against the tyranny of the majority (or those who get themselves accepted as the majority).”

            I don’t think the first of these follows, since the peons are subject to voter pressure indirectly through their superiors, to whom they are accountable and who in turn are subject to election.

            Mill’s position on tyranny within democracy is a joke, or at least should be; the members of a democracy consent to abide by the majority decision, hence they can never be tyrannized by it since you cannot be oppressed by your own choices.

            Socrates understood this. Hobbes understood this. So did Spinoza, Locke, and Rousseau. They built different structures on top of it, but they all used this foundation.

            If we view society as a body, Mill is trying to protect every part of it equally. Although this sounds nice, I want to point out that no one governs their own body in this way; we are always prioritizing one part or process above another, and any reasonable person would sacrifice a part to preserve the whole if that’s what was needed.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm

              Mill seems to be spot on: a majority (or those who manage to wield power) can oppress the other members of society. For example, consider when slavery was practiced in our democracy. That seems to have been a tyranny of a rather vile sort. Also, think of the rhetoric used by the Tea Party and Republicans-they certainly seem to hold that the democratic government has acted against the will of the people. While I disagree with them on many points, I do agree that the state can be used to impose on the people. See also Thoreau on this matter.

            • Asur said, on February 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm

              “For example, consider when slavery was practiced in our democracy. That seems to have been a tyranny of a rather vile sort.”

              This is a non sequitur as slaves were not citizens and hence did not participate in our democracy; my argument was that when one chooses to participate in a democracy, one necessarily accepts the possibility that its decisions may be either disagreeable or personally disadvantageous. This is a fundamental aspect of democracy; there is no way to remove it. Hence, if democracy is just, this cannot be unjust.

              I wish you would address that directly.

              As for the Tea Party and other immoderate Republicans, we already know that they’re not rational.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 26, 2011 at 4:59 pm

              They were not citizens because they were excluded on the basis of law set by a democratic government. That seems to clearly show that democracies can be unjust. Unless, of course, justice only applies to those who are not being treated “unjustly.”

              History is replete with examples of unjust laws (such as the segregation and discrimination laws) that were chosen democratically. While, as Locke argues, people seem to be obligated to go with the majority, this does not entail that the majority is thus just. Also, the obligation to go with the majority can be rightly broken in cases when the injustice of the law warrants such disobedience. For example, I would not have enforced the fugitive slave act even though it was the law. Even Aquinas argues that there can be tyrannical laws.

            • Asur said, on February 26, 2011 at 6:47 pm

              Hmm. If I assume that justice is an objective standard that relations either meet or fail to meet, I can derive your positions here but not mine; I take it, then, that this is what we actually disagree on.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm

              That seems so. Legalism, the idea that justice is what the law says it is, is an established philosophical and legal theory. I disagree with it-mainly by using the example of when slavery was legal and also during the time of legalized segregation and discrimination.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm

              “As for the Tea Party and other immoderate Republicans, we already know that they’re not rational.”

              The basic message of the tea party is that we have to live with our means. So I guess Asur believes that borrowing 1.5 trillion per year for the next ten years is the rational course. I think not.

            • Asur said, on February 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

              “The basic message of the tea party is that we have to live with our means.”

              TJ, it’s not the end that irrational, but their means to it.

            • magus71 said, on February 28, 2011 at 1:28 am

              Asur said:

              “TJ, it’s not the end that irrational, but their means to it.”

              Like what? Compare the gathering of people at Glenn beck’s rally and the almost perfectly-clean landscape they left after they were done, to the Woodstock crowd. I’d consider the Woodstock-type gatherings to be composed of people at political odds with tea partiers. Who’s more irrational?

              For one thing, any crowd is automatically closer to the insane side of a sanity scale than an individual. Another lesson I learned from law enforcment. But as far as large groups go, I just can’t see that much insanity in the Tea Party’s means. There’s the usual sloganism that comes with political movements, but that’s hardly irrational because
              it seems to work.

            • Asur said, on February 28, 2011 at 8:46 am

              We’re using ‘means’ in different senses; I don’t intend a rally or demonstration, but rather a social program meant to achieve an end such as economic stability, low unemployment, etc.

              For example, a Tea Partier might claim that reduced government results in X, where X is the end and reduction of government the means. Here, I agree with X as something we should work towards, but think the given means actually counter to that end.

              Although I’m willing to evaluate any number of specific instances if you’re willing to supply them, this is essentially a dead issue to me; just as with Mike’s belief in a universal standard of justice, it’s just so unlikely to be true that there’s no point in engaging it unless pressed to do so.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm

              This is what the Tea Party types understand, but not everybody understands:


              When I learned that liquor can be sold in Louisiana all day and night, I was stunned. And then I was stunned at myself for being stunned. More than stunned — appalled, actually. I’m an American, but in that moment I realized I’ve lived in Norway so long that — for all my endless ranting about it — I’ve grown accustomed, on some level, to that illiberal, menacing, infantilizing monster, the Nanny State. Despite all my best efforts, I’d turned into somebody who was thrown by the idea of a laissez-faire liquor law. “I’ve lived in Norway so long,” I lamented on Facebook, “that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live like an adult.”

              Of course this isn’t about liquor — it’s about freedom. Liquor prices and opening hours are hard facts. But the larger subject here is a more elusive one, which involves not just facts but feelings. It’s about the whole experience of living in one kind of place or another. In some places, so many of the establishments and institutions that figure in your life are owned, run, and very strictly regulated by the government that it can feel as if you spend every day with the heavy hand of the state constantly on your shoulder. In other places, you just don’t have that feeling.

              The latter sensation is called feeling free.

            • Asur said, on February 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm

              TJ, I haven’t looked through your link yet, but I think you make a compelling point.

              I’m currently struggling to decide what, exactly, ‘freedom’ means, and if or why it’s necessarily good. Two very important questions, and I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t settled them yet.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    For once I agree with Asur. I have no problems with unions in the private sector, where there is a clear division between management and labor. However, in the case of public sector unions, they basically try as hard as possible to elect one of their own, who will then enrich them at the taxpayers expense.

    • Asur said, on February 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      I’m breaking out the champagne! =D

      • WTP said, on February 24, 2011 at 5:19 pm

        Dom? Count me in as well…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      Ah, the unions have learned well from the corporations and the rich. 🙂

      • WTP said, on February 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm

        All of the corporations and all of the rich? More like a well publicized minority. Most rich people and corporations make their money the old fashioned way, they provide goods and services that people purchase of their own free will and choice in a competitive environment. The money that monopolistic public employee unions are paid with is taken by the government by force. Usually implied force, but force none the less.

        As for corporations and others enriching themselves via government largess, all the more reason to keep government as small as necessary.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 25, 2011 at 10:39 am

          I’m fine with cutting all largess from the state. Corporations, unions, individuals, organizations, religions and so on should only receive what is their just due. In many cases, this will be much less than what is doled out now.

          At the core, I would say we share the same basic principle: the state should not be wasting our money.

  3. magus71 said, on February 27, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Unions appeal to Mike’s collectivist ideals.

    The weak have always banded together to make themselves stronger. You don’t need to pay union dues to do this. I dropped out of the union at the police department and got the cold shoulder from some.

    But in the military for instance, I see non-commissioned soldiers forming “mafias” to protect themselves against commissioned idiots. I’m all for this. It maintains a balance of power that’s needed to keep some from abusing their power. But people don’t have to pay an outside entity which invariably doesn’t use the money is the right way, to advocate for power.

    In many cases, Mike, the unions don’t actually do what they’re supposed to. They end up being protective of under-production or they do nothing but collect money. If working conditions are bad, people can go else-where. The mobility in today’s society is not like that of the mid 1800s. This simply is not a Charles Dickens novel..

    There are many successful businesses that pay well that don’t have unions. When I worked for Federal Express before being hired at the PD, I was quite surprised to see they had no union and got payed very well–and the workers actually seemed happier than UPS workers who had a union.

    The unions, like many bureaucracies, were originally made to serve people. But also like bureacracies, they too often serve themselves.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      As a social animal, I am all for banding together against foes. As a Yankee, I am not keen on paying union dues. Like you, I think that unions can often take the dues and do little. That is something I am against.

      Ideally, I think that organized labor and organized business are both very good ideas. However, both can do things that are rather bad.

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