That's too bad. Ensuring a "voice" for organized labor in government policymaking may sound reasonable, especially when those policies affect government workers. But collective bargaining in the public sector is in reality not reasonable at all. It is emphatically not like bargaining in the private sector, where unions representing labor contend with management representing owners for a share of the profits that labor helps create.
In the public sector, there are no profits to share. There are only taxpayers' dollars, which neither government employees nor government managers create. As for the taxpayers who do create those dollars, they have no seat at the table when public unions negotiate over wages and benefits. Instead, government sits on both sides, negotiating with itself over how to spend the people's money.
So unlike their counterparts in the private sector, public-sector unions are rarely constrained by market forces. There are limits to the wages and benefits that labor can demand from private employers. Corporations have to make a profit to stay alive, and both sides know that if costs rise too high, the results may be lost sales, eliminated jobs, or -- if worse comes to worst -- bankruptcy. Consequently, union negotiators cannot insist on the moon, and corporate managers dare not lose sight of the company's bottom line.
But that check and balance doesn't exist in public-sector collective bargaining. Teachers' or firefighters' or library workers' unions don't have to worry about jeopardizing the government's profits or driving away its customers: Government agencies can't go bankrupt, and their "customers" can't switch to a cheaper brand. So why not insist on the moon? Especially when the government managers on the other side of the table generally have little incentive to keep costs down. After all, if the pay, perks, and pensions of public workers send budgets through the roof, what choice do taxpayers have but to foot the bill?
At bottom, collective bargaining in the public sector is profoundly antidemocratic: It denies voters final say over the public policies they must live under, by forcing their elected representatives to shape those policies in concert with unions. In effect, it transfers to union officials -- interested parties not chosen by the people -- decision-making authority that they have no legitimate right to. That is why until just a few decades ago, it was universally understood that collective bargaining was incompatible with government employment.
Gradually it is becoming clear that throwing the door open to public-sector unions was a serious and costly mistake. It will take years to undo that mistake, but the process has begun. Even, if ever so slowly, in Massachusetts.
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