Jeff Jacoby

If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker were getting a dollar for every protester, politician, and pundit accusing him of union-busting, attacking public-sector employees, or waging a war on working people -- to say nothing of those likening him to Hosni Mubarak and Adolf Hitler -- it wouldn't be long before he could personally close his state's $137 million budget shortfall.

To angry protesters occupying the Capitol building in Madison, it may seem clear that Walker's bill restricting the scope of collective bargaining for government employees is "an assault on unions," as President Obama called it, and no doubt many of them would agree with the AFL-CIO that "nothing less than democracy, fundamental rights, and freedom are at stake" in the fight over public-sector bargaining.

But they aren't at stake. There is no "fundamental right" to collective bargaining in government jobs. Indeed, labor leaders themselves used to say so.

Arnold Zander, the Wisconsin union organizer who became the first president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, wrote in 1940 that AFSCME saw "less value in the use of contracts and agreements in public service than . . . in private employment." Instead of collective bargaining, he explained, "our local unions find promotion and adoption of civil service legislation . . . the more effective way" to serve the interests of government employees. As late as the 1950s, AFSCME considered collective bargaining in the public sector desirable but not essential, and viewed strong civil service laws as the best protection for government workers.

In December 1955, in a New York Times Magazine essay on "Labor's Future," no less a union icon than AFL-CIO president George Meany wrote: "The main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government."

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for