Jeff Jacoby
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Obviously, Big Labor's outlook later changed. Dozens of states -- starting with Wisconsin in 1959 -- passed laws that authorized collective bargaining in the public sector, and public-sector unionism skyrocketed in the decades that followed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that while union membership has dwindled to just 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce, among public employees it has grown to more than 36 percent. Today most union members work for government. With public-employee dues swelling union coffers by hundreds of millions of dollars annually, it's no surprise that organized-labor and its allies now embrace collective-bargaining in the public sector as a "fundamental right" that only a union-busting tyrant would threaten.

Yet even today, public-employee collective bargaining is far from universal. According to a General Accounting Office summary, in only about half the states are unions allowed to negotiate labor contracts for most public workers. The other states either limit bargaining rights to specific government employees, such as teachers or firefighters, or ban public-sector collective bargaining outright. Among the states that don't allow public employees to bargain collectively are North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana; at last report, "democracy, fundamental rights, and freedom" were doing just fine in all of them. They'll do just fine in Wisconsin, too, if the governor's proposed reforms are passed.

And then there are federal employees. Obama scolds Walker for trying to restrict collective bargaining by government employees to wages, yet the two million federal civilian (non-postal) workers Obama presides over can't even bargain over that much: With rare exceptions, the wages, hours, and benefits of federal employment have never been subject to union contracts. The president appears to be quite OK with that. Last November he unilaterally announced a two-year pay freeze for all federal civilian federal employees, informing them -- no negotiating -- that they were going to "make some sacrifices" adding up to $2 billion this fiscal year.

Does this mean that federal employees are oppressed and underpaid? Hardly. Average federal wages far outstrip those in the private economy. When benefits are included, federal worker compensation averages $123,000 -- more than double the private-sector average of $61,000. Federal employees don't need collective bargaining over pay and pensions to be treated well, and the lack of bargaining rights has not busted federal-employee unions.

As even labor leaders once acknowledged, it is civil-service rules, not collective bargaining rights, that safeguard public employees' interests in hiring, promotions, and discipline. Wisconsin could abolish public-sector collective-bargaining entirely, and its government workers would still be strongly protected from management abuse -- and as free as they are today to join unions able to advocate on their behalf.

Wisconsin Republicans are targeting only the public unions' overweening political clout. They pose no danger to the welfare of public employees -- let alone to "democracy, fundamental rights, and freedom."

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Jeff Jacoby

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