Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Public Employee Collective Bargaining Rights and Other Entitlements

Take a look at what the Republican National Governors Association (the “RGA”) is saying in support of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his battle with public employee unions:

Notice what’s left out? There’s not a word about Walker’s trying to roll back public employee collective bargaining rights. The political consultants advising the RGA have clearly decided that they can make some political hay by reminding voters that Wisconsin Democrats aren’t showing up for Senate votes and that public employees haven’t shared much in the pain generated by the economic downturn. Yet the RGAs silence about collective bargaining rights shows that it has taken to heart polling results indicating that there's little public support for rolling back public employee collective bargaining rights.

It’s not hard to figure out why Wisconsin Senators fleeing out-of-state to nullify the results of the last election is unpopular. People understandably expect the votes they cast last November to count. It’s a little harder, however, to understand why making public employees give back concessions they’ve won from the state through collective bargaining is so much more popular than scaling back the collective bargaining rights they exercised to secure those concessions. A lot of people seem to believe that, under present circumstances, it’s perfectly OK for the state to demand that public employees give back pension and health care benefits but that it's deeply objectionable, as a matter of political morality, for the state now to nullify any collective bargaining rights--even when there’s a decent argument to be made that public employee collective bargaining creates a structural tendency toward insolvency in state governments.

That’s perplexing. If political morality demands that public employees keep their hard-won collective bargaining rights mustn’t it also hold that they’re entitled to whatever advantages they’ve secured by exercising those rights? With a little ingenuity, you can negotiate your way around that contradiction temporarily by pointing to peculiarities of the Wisconsin situation. The public employee unions are offering to give back advantages secured through collective bargaining in exchange for the state’s not acting on its legal right to lay off public employees. So far, that’s not a deal that Walker and the Republicans have been willing to accept, but maybe a critical mass of voters believe that they should because it’s wrong under present circumstances to demand anything more from public employees.

Yet that line of thought leads us back to the same puzzle. Wisconsin public employees owe their collective bargaining rights to a fifty-year-old act of the state legislature and the governor. Now a duly elected legislature and governor have decided that collective bargaining about pension and health care benefits is a bad idea. How can the Wisconsin state legislature and governor have had the authority to confer collective bargaining rights on public employees fifty years ago and now lack the authority to take them away today when they believe they imperil the state’s solvency over the long term?

Asking such questions brings a general feature of the politics of so-called "entitlements" into focus. A right becomes legally vested when the right-holder acquires the legal standing to uphold it in court against people who want to take it away. You might say that a right becomes politically vested when the right-holder acquires the moral standing to uphold it in the court of public opinion against a democratic majority that wants to take it away. Scott Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin legislatures have all the legal authority they need to take away public employee’s collective bargaining rights inasmuch as they aren’t legally vested. The question is whether those rights are still vested as a matter of political morality.

The battle we're going to be having over “entitlements” at the federal level is going to turn on roughly the same question. When we speak of unfunded Medicare and Social Security liabilities, we’re referring to clusters of statutory rights that aren’t vested legally inasmuch as congress and the president have all the legal authority they need to prune them back as far as they'd like. The question will be whether we’re reaching a tipping point in political morality at which those rights aren't vested politically.


Dave said...

Some union boss deserves credit for the genius of referring to these as "collective bargaining *rights*". That word has deep connotations in the minds of the American public: essentially, when you call something a "right", it implies that it has "moral standing", whereas when you call something an entitlement, it implies only that it has "legal standing". (Thanks to Ron for providing this useful distinction.) Your choice of word establishes the framing (moral or legal) of the question, with, I suspect, different results.

Just a little more polling skepticism here. Although I can't locate the actual poll questions, the NYT article appears to claim the following:

- When asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of unions, about 42% of respondents were "undecided or hadn't heard enough about them". (1/3 favorable, 1/4 unfavorable, "the rest" in this category)

- Yet when asked whether they are in favor of weakening the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions, 93% had an opinion! (60 to 33 against)

If people don't know enough to have a favorable or unfavorable view about unions, they can hardly be expected to understand the pros and cons of collective bargaining, and how it differs when applied to the public vs. private sector. So I would hypothesize this is happening:

What the Pollster says: "Are you in favor of weakening the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions?"

What the Pollee hears: "Are you in favor of weakening the [blah blah] rights of [blah blah]?"

Pollee's Response: "Of course not!"

Popinjay said...

I'd like to see what the polls are saying now that the people of Wisconsin are finding out about a possible alternative to busting the unions: like massive job cuts, massive cuts to education and Medicare, massive cuts all the way around. There is no free lunch.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Oh, give me a break. "Layoffs and massive cuts to education and Medicare" are not the alternative to collective bargaining by employees. This is fed by a trope that public employees are massively overcompensated, and that--if they were--that wages and benefits cannot be fixed while collective bargaining is in place.

And that is baldly untrue. The Wisconsin public workers were tactically smart in acceding to all of the wage and benefit demands of the governor. So there is no remaining budget reason to disempower the unions.

Anonymous said...

Come on Osama. Walker is arguing that public employee collective bargaining is a structural impediment to state solvency because the there isn't a real adversity of interests between the parties doing the bargaining. Elected politicians have a compelling incentive to buy off the unions with pension benefits that won't come due until after they're out of office and work rules that the public won't notice in the expectation that the unions will return the favor in the form of campaign contributions to their next campaign. Maybe Walker's wrong about that, but he's surely offering a budgetary reason for altering the collective bargaining regime.

Popinjay said...

To Mr. Von McIntyre:

Here's one great big remaining budget reason to disempower the unions.

It comes from a quote from Mickey Kaus as quoted in Ron's later post today:

"[T]he damage done by public sector unionism isn’t mainly the producing of deficits. It’s the crippling of government, so that bad teachers can’t be fired and productivity stagnates and virtually everything the government does it does crappier than private industry does it. That’s a big, ongoing problem for Democrats . . . [I]t should trouble even non-neo liberals. Democrats are the party that needs the government to be good at something other than mailing out checks.”

I couldn't find a better way to say it myself so here you are.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Color me unconvinced.

Some corporations pollute, therefore corporations should be illegal. Some mailmen steal mail, so goodbye to them, as well. So the idea that public unions have to be disempowered because its hard to fire teachers is equally absurd. Unless, of course, one is dispositionally opposed to unions in the first place.

There is ample understanding of Walker's real motives, from pundits, fellow Republicans, and Wisconsonites, so I won't bother reiterating those. Mickey Kaus has been anti-union since he emerged from the womb: quoting an idealogue as proof of the correctness of your position is pretty weak tea.

State deficits are driven, for the most part, by two things: the recession (lower revenues, plus higher safety net costs), plus rising medical costs (for MedicAid, other state medical programs, and employee benefits). Collective bargaining is not an important driver of high government costs by any honest accounting.

Popinjay said...

I'm not anti-union at all. I think there was a time for unions and they did wonderful things for Americans. I think unions can be good in the private sector. It's the public sector that I have a problem with as do many others.

I'm not trying to change anyone's mind, least of all Mr. Von McIntyre's. I'm expressing my own opinion. I do, however, find fault when people who try to change someone's mind or influence opinion use faulty logic. Mr. VM's logic could use some work.