When public-sector employees refuse to work, innocent bystanders are always the victims. Unions are well aware that by walking off the job, their members can deprive a huge swath of the public of what are frequently essential services -- trash collection, public transit, air-traffic control, classroom teaching. Since those services tend to be legally sheltered monopolies, a union strike leaves the public with few alternatives. Shut down the schools or let the garbage pile up, and voters grow desperate or angry. As public impatience mounts, elected leaders will usually decide they have no choice but to give the union what it wants. Rare is the official who can resist that kind of political pressure.
The private economy is different. Striking workers at a private corporation may demonize management as heartless plutocrats and greedy "1 percenters" who deny employees the pay and perks they deserve. But while union rhetoric can be ridiculously exaggerated, labor disputes in the private sector generally boil down to an argument about economic equity: Workers deserve more of the profits they helped generate. If those workers walk off the job, both sides pay a price -- the company loses business, and employees lose income. Seldom does public opinion play the deciding role. That's because a strike against General Motors or Shaw's Supermarkets doesn't leave consumers with nowhere else to go.
By contrast, when public-sector unions call (or threaten) a strike, their strategy isn't to starve management of revenue. It is to cause maximum distress to blameless third parties – ordinary residents – and then deploy that distress as a weapon. That's not economic equity. It's raw power politics.
It's also egregious. In Chicago, the average public school teacher makes more than $76,000, according to union figures -- half again as much as the average private-sector employee earns. Over the past nine years, Crain's Chicago Business reports, teacher salaries in Chicago have climbed 42 percent. And what have Chicago taxpayers gotten in exchange? One of the worst public school systems in America, with a graduation rate of only 55 percent. "Of 100 Chicago Public School Freshmen, Six Will Get A College Degree," a headline in the Chicago Tribune announced in 2006.
Only in government work would employees claim that so lousy a record entitles them to still more hefty raises, or to a level of job security virtually unheard-of in the private economy. Such an outrageous sense of entitlement is among the poisoned fruit of public-sector collective bargaining, which empowers union officials with influence they have no right to -- influence they preserve by exploiting other people's pain.
Correction: Undergraduate tuition at George Washington University in 1975 was $2,500, not $2,400 as I wrote in Wednesday's column.