Walter E. Williams
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With all of the union strife in Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey, and indications of more to come, it might be time to shed a bit of light on unions as an economic unit.

First, let's get one important matter out of the way. I value freedom of association, and non-association, even in ways that are not always popular and often deemed despicable. I support a person's right to be a member or not be a member of a labor union. From my view, the only controversy regarding unions is what should they be permitted and not permitted to do.

According to the Department of Labor, most union members today work for state, local and federal government. Close to 40 percent of public employees are unionized. As such, they represent a powerful political force in elections. If you're a candidate for governor, mayor or city councilman, you surely want the votes and campaign contributions from public employee unions. In my view, that's no problem. The problem arises after you win office and sit down to bargain over the pay and working conditions with unions who voted for you.

Given the relationship between politicians and public employee unions, we should not be surprised that public employee wages and benefits often average 45 percent higher than their counterparts in the private sector. Often they receive pension and health care benefits making little or no contribution.

How is it that public employee unions have such a leg up on their private-sector brethren? The answer is not rocket science. Employers in the private sector have a bottom line. If they overcompensate their employees, company profits will sink. The company might even face bankruptcy.

Of course, if private companies can count on federal government bailouts, as did General Motors and Chrysler, they can maintain a comfy relationship with their unions. No such bottom line exists in the government sector. Politicians have every reason to grant benefits to their political allies, in this case public employee unions. They don't pick up the tab; it's unorganized taxpayers who face higher taxes.

Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker says that stripping the workers of collective bargaining rights, and limiting talks to the subject of basic wages, is necessary to give the state the flexibility to get its finances in order and spare taxpayers further grief.

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Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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