“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Words Matter In the Wisconsin Public Sector Union Standoff

It's funny how often we let terms be used in ways that color debate without realizing it.

The most famous one, of course, is when liberals call those with pro-life sentiments "anti-abortion." By using the 'anti' prefix, liberal media outlets give a negative slant to those wanting to protect the unborn simply by the choice of the term they use to label them.

Similarly, without really thinking about it, most media outlets refer to public sector unions in Wisconsin, and their allies, as protesting for their collective bargaining "rights." When you call it a "right," images of the Bill of Rights loom.

It becomes sacrilegious to strip someone of a "right."

But in last Monday's edition of the Wall Street Journal, Harvard economics professor Robert Barro wrote an editorial entitled Unions vs. the Right to Work. It was a very clever and inspired reminder of that other labor "right"- the "right to work," meaning that in such a state, an employee many not be forced to join a union or pay dues-like fees. There are no "closed shops" in right to work states.

Barro writes one line that really says it all-

"Collective bargaining on a broad scale is more similar to an antitrust violation than to a civil liberty."

And, he adds,

"In fact, labor unions were subject to U.S. antitrust laws in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was first applied in 1894 to the American Railway Union. However, organized labor managed to obtain exemption from federal antitrust laws in subsequent legislation, notably the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Remarkably, labor unions are not only immune from antitrust laws but can also negotiate a "union shop," which requires nonunion employees to join the union or pay nearly equivalent dues. Somehow, despite many attempts, organized labor has lacked the political power to repeal the key portion of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act that allowed states to pass right-to-work laws, which now prohibit the union shop in 22 states. From the standpoint of civil liberties, the individual right to work—without being forced to join a union or pay dues—has a much better claim than collective bargaining. (Not to mention that "right to work" has a much more pleasant, liberal sound than "collective bargaining.") The push for right-to-work laws, which haven't been enacted anywhere but Oklahoma over the last 20 years, seems about to take off."

Thus, lest you fall victim to the clever uses of the phrase 'collective bargaining rights,' think about that other 'right'- to work. Barro goes on to set the current standoff in context, then offer some empirical evidence that right to work laws are generally better for state economies,

"The current pushback against labor-union power stems from the collision between overly generous benefits for public employees— notably for pensions and health care—and the fiscal crises of state and local governments. Teachers and other public-employee unions went too far in convincing weak or complicit state and local governments to agree to obligations, particularly defined-benefit pension plans, that created excessive burdens on taxpayers.There is evidence that right-to-work laws—or, more broadly, the pro-business policies offered by right-to-work states—matter for economic growth. In research published in 2000, economist Thomas Holmes of the University of Minnesota compared counties close to the border between states with and without right-to-work laws (thereby holding constant an array of factors related to geography and climate). He found that the cumulative growth of employment in manufacturing (the traditional area of union strength prior to the rise of public-employee unions) in the right-to-work states was 26 percentage points greater than that in the non-right-to-work states."

That's evidence you won't hear from Richard Trumka or the left-leaning media covering the Wisconsin story. But it goes beyond that. It's a matter, as I've written before regarding Reagan's one major failing, of cementing longlasting conservative changes. To this end, Barro observes,

"In recognition of this fiscal reality, even the unions and their Democratic allies in Wisconsin have agreed to Gov. Scott Walker's proposed cutbacks of benefits, as long as he drops the restrictions on collective bargaining. The problem is that this "compromise" leaves intact the structure of strong public-employee unions that helped to create the unsustainable fiscal situation; after all, the next governor may have less fiscal discipline. A long-run solution requires a change in structure, for example, by restricting collective bargaining for public employees and, to go further, by introducing a right-to-work law.

In general, the most likely arenas are states in which the governor and both houses of the state legislature are Republican (often because of the 2010 elections), and in which substantial rights for collective bargaining by public employees currently exist. This group includes Indiana, which has recently been as active as Wisconsin on labor issues; ironically, Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in 1957 but repealed it in 1965. Otherwise, my tentative list includes Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska (with a nominally nonpartisan legislature), Kansas, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The national fiscal crisis and recession that began in 2008 had many ill effects, including the ongoing crises of pension and health-care obligations in many states. But at least one positive consequence is that the required return to fiscal discipline has caused reexamination of the growth in economic and political power of public-employee unions. Hopefully, embattled politicians like Gov. Walker in Wisconsin will maintain their resolve and achieve a more sensible long-term structure for the taxpayers in their states."

The past few weeks have seen many impassioned fixtures of the left- Howard Dean and Wonderboy, for example, lamenting Scott Walker's objective as if certain inalienable 'rights' are being removed from Wisconsin's teachers. But Kim Strassel's widely-hailed editorial two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal noted that Jimmy Carter signed legislation forbidding federal unions to bargain collectively over any major aspects of their contracts.

Not only will Wonderboy be further embarrassed by this, the more he weighs in on Wisconsin, but it also completely undercuts this false argument used by so many liberals that Walker is doing something positively un-American.

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