AFF’s Chicago chapter chairman Richard Lorenc debated public sector collective bargaining on July 30th, 2011 at the 2011 Bughouse Square Main Debate, presented by the Newberry Library. Lorenc debated Chicago Teachers Union staffer Kenzo Shibata.
What is the goal of collective bargaining in the public sector?
Is it to advance justice? Prosperity? Social cohesion?
Public sector collective bargaining has led to a situation where pay raises are automatic regardless of the economic circumstances or the public’s ability to pay; where job security is higher than anywhere in the private sector; and where workers can retire much earlier and with a much better pension than most in the private workforce.
This turns public sector workers into a distinct class of people who are treated differently from the general public–at the general public’s expense.
Far from uniting people within the social order, public sector collective bargaining fractures it deeply.
It strains the natural relationship between people who create value and those who consume its benefits, creating unnecessary ill will between the public and its servants.
It creates conflict where none must exist, and ensures that conflict is ever-present, always looming behind the scenes, compelling decent people to demand things from their fellows that they would never dream of demanding from their neighbors.
We see this happening today as impassioned protesters demand that politicians either break promises to public sector workers, raise taxes during a difficult economy, or cut programs on which many have come to depend.
Teachers are upset in Wisconsin, where Governor Walker recently removed collective bargaining for most public employees’ benefits. Prison guards in California are on edge because of prospective cuts where an amazing 11% of the state budget — more than what is spent on higher education — goes to the penal system. In Europe, the situation has turned violent.
These difficult circumstances could have been avoided had a state of constant conflict not been formally instituted between the public and its servants.
The source of the conflict is collective bargaining, which intentionally pits worker against manager, and worker against taxpayer.
Collective bargaining assumes the boss is always exploiting workers, and views any move by management to achieve greater productivity with suspicion or contempt. It therefore blocks meaningful reform desired by the public, particularly reform in the government school system.
In fact, public sector unions, mostly through the process of collective bargaining, have become the country’s more powerful special interest groups.
Collective bargaining in the public sector distorts the fact that taxpayers are the customers and the providers of workers’ pay, and forces public sector unions to work to curry favor from politicians before working to do the best job for the public.
Collective bargaining has created a sad system in which the public no longer regards its servants as honorable, but, rather, as an elite that is largely unaccountable and immune to the economic forces by which citizens live daily and through which they pay their taxes.
It transforms otherwise trustworthy, loyal, helpful people into a faceless monolith whose monopoly power is resistant to change. It has led to a perverse outcome whereby citizens can be exploited by workers within public service monopolies who have the same sort of power that sparked unions in the first place.
Collective bargaining in the public sector is the very definition of anti-trust.
Collective bargaining codifies conflict. It anticipates battles before they are warranted, and relies on a warped definition of justice whose goal is to get things from other people rather than address wrongs actually committed.
Indeed, workers in all fields–public and private–have the right to associate, but public sector workers do not have the right to threaten a strike if they do not receive automatic increases in compensation or benefits.
To answer the question posed today: collective bargaining for public sector workers is fundamentally incompatible with serving the public interest.
Public sector collective bargaining is very different from the similar practice in the private sector.
For one thing, public sector workers possess a higher level of job security simply by being employed by government. Strict civil service laws apply to them whether they bargain collectively or not.
And because government has monopolies on the services it provides, its workers are insulated from competitive forces that cause rapid changes in the private marketplace.
But there is a more basic reason public sector collective bargaining is different from its private sector equivalent.
Everyone uses public roads. Everyone uses the public sewer system. Everyone has the option to send their child to a government school (although a few can choose to send their children elsewhere).
Because these services are available to all, we expect everyone to pay a little bit for them in the form of taxes.
Therefore, each person should also expect to get his money’s worth. He should expect smooth roads, clean water from the faucet, and schools that educate children well.
We do not allow trolls to set up booths on public roads nor bursars in public kindergartens. Why, then, do we permit unions through the practice of collective bargaining to erect the same sort of barriers to public services?
It is unethical for institutions such as collective bargaining to exist in the public sector because it promotes conflicts that threaten the public’s ability to access services for which they have no choice but to pay.
It is also wrong that collective bargaining in the public sector allows decisions over public workers’ compensation to be made in private where it ought to be done with full public participation.
Far from enhancing a free society or any notion of democracy, collective bargaining increases the clout of those who have vested interests in ensuring government spending continues to grow regardless of whether the public agrees.
In fact, collective bargaining has contributed to the states’ current debt crises. It is not the fault of the teachers, the hole-fillers, or the policemen or firemen, but rather that of the politicians who felt they could bend the rules for long enough so they could please everyone at once.
Bad rules lead people to do things they would not do ordinarily in their private lives.
Many of you will agree that legislation cannot force someone or something to be what it is not. Just because politicians put ink to paper and call it law doesn’t mean that it is accurate, appropriate, or right.
It is through civilization that we develop good, effective, acceptable rules. If our rules are not productive, then we must cast them aside and investigate alternatives.
Because collective bargaining prevents public servants from being rewarded for doing well, damages their public reputation, institutionalizes conflict, betrays the public trust, undermines representative democracy, and resists reform, public sector collective bargaining must be abandoned.
AFF-Chicago’s director of programming Eric Kohn also spoke at Bughouse Square, taking to a soapbox to ask: “Are Americans mature enough for free speech?” He spoke about the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision, enabling groups of individuals–also known as corporations–to participate in the political process. Watch Eric’s remarks here.