David R. Henderson  

Freedom of Association: What Noam Scheiber Misses

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In an otherwise excellent reporting piece in the New Republic, Senior Editor Noam Scheiber gives his view about why the governor's race in Wisconsin is so important. To recap, Governor Scott Walker is running for reelection and he's the one who took on the teachers union a few years ago.

Scheiber writes:

Walker achieved conservative icon status by gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions and preventing the unions from automatically deducting dues from members' paychecks. The law he signed triggered a backlash from Democrats across Wisconsin and ultimately led to an attempted recall in 2012, while also causing the state's public unions to hemorrhage members.

But did Walker gut collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions? No, he did not. He gutted some of their power. There is no such thing as a right to bargain collectively unless those who are represented want to be represented and those with whom they want to bargain want to bargain with them. What Scheiber misses is that what Walker really did is uphold freedom of association for workers. His (correct) claim that the law Walker signed caused "the state's public unions to hemorrhage members" should have led Scheiber to that conclusion. Those workers, presumably, did not want to associate with the union and they exercised their right.

The other thing that should have clued Scheiber in to what was going on is his statement that unions are prevented "from automatically deducting dues from members' paychecks." In other words, again, members can not be forced to pay. That's another victory for freedom of association.

Put that issue aside and Scheiber's piece is a good piece of reporting on the stakes involved. But even there, he misses one of the big stakes involved: the attempt to rein in the greediness of government-sector unions. I live in what could be called a one-party state: California. Democrats dominate on every level of state politics. Government-sector unions are very powerful and have used this power to extract huge inflation-adjusted, and not fully funded, pensions that many of them can collect as early as in their early 50s. The governor of the state, Jerry Brown, is a Democrat. Guess who wrote a letter to the Board of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS) a few days ago expressing his upset about a CALPERS decision to "include temporary pay hikes in the way pensions are calculated for newly hired workers." That's right. Jerry Brown.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Jeff writes:
gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions

"defending the interests of state taxpayers" is the other way to write that sentence, but then again stories about competing interests, trade-offs, and compliance with balanced budget requirements are less fun to read and write than good-guy, bad-guy morality plays.

Scheiber also neglects to mention the bizarre lengths some Democrat county prosecutors are going to, in an effort to discredit Walker. Somewhat akin to what is happening to Rick Perry in Texas. Criminalizing political disputes.

JLV writes:

Although apparently only political opponents of Scott Walker deserve this vaunted freedom of association. You'll note that the one public sector union that supported Walker (and Republicans generally) is exempt from the law.

vikingvista writes:

"Rights".

Some people use the same term whether they consciously mean legal rights or moral rights.

Some people use the term without even considering that there is distinction.

Some people, oddly enough, profess that the latter don't even exist--thereby denying themselves and everyone else the possibility of creating or judging the former, even in the face of the fact that the former are created and judged all the time.

What Walker did was of such significance and distinction, not to mention courage, that it is hard for me to be critical of his other common human and political failings, whatever they may turn out to be. He is a rarity.

RickC writes:

"He’s effectively defunded a key Democratic constituency, . . ." Noam Scheiber

Michael Barone on that point: Let’s unpack that. Where do public employee unions get their money? Directly from dues paid by public employees, who in turn get that money from taxpayers. Where does that money go? Politically, almost entirely to the Democratic Party, as Scheiber admits. Public employee unions, whatever else they do, are (in almost all cases) a mechanism for mandatory taxpayer financing of one political party. Scheiber’s complaint is that Wisconsin Republicans have cut the amount of such public financing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@JLV,
You'll note that the one public sector union that supported Walker (and Republicans generally) is exempt from the law.
Touche. Let’s take them on next. Even Scott Walker has toyed with this. See "Scott Walker creates stir with talk of stripping police and firefighter union rights,” Wisconsin State Journal, July 31, 2013.
By the way, I’m not sure that police and firemen’s unions do support Republicans generally. Could you provide a cite, JLV?

Edogg writes:

David, I have several quibbles.

Noam Scheiber said "by gutting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions and preventing the unions from automatically deducting dues from members' paychecks." In addition to removing automatic deduction, Act 10 also restricted the types of contracts the unions could negotiate.

I agree with vikingvista that one should distinguish between legal rights and moral rights. (Of course, there is debate about the existence and nature of moral rights.) But is Scheiber wrong to use one definition of the word "rights"? As vikingvista says, some people conflate the two definitions, but Scheiber shows no signs of confusing the two.

Furthermore, do workers have rights to employment on their own terms? If workers do not want to join a union, they can decide not to work for an employer that requires that membership. Legislating that workers are not required to join a union conditional on their employment expands their statutory rights and perhaps improves their capability to associate, but it wasn't a categorical change from no freedom of association to freedom of association.

Do you disagree?

Finally, I just want to say that though I've said nothing but critical comments on your posts, I do enjoy your blogging and find that a lot what you say is insightful.

Ian writes:

Edogg said:

"Furthermore, do workers have rights to employment on their own terms? If workers do not want to join a union, they can decide not to work for an employer that requires that membership."

First of all, the employer isn't requiring union membership. The union, using the force of government, is requiring membership.

Secondly, framing the workers choice like that is a fallacy. It just dodges the argument.

Imagine a movie theater has a policy of pouring butter on every bucket of popcorn, because butter lovers had gotten together and decided that EVERYONE should have to eat butter on their popcorn.

Maybe the butter lovers could make an argument saying that are somehow making the plain popcorn lovers better off, even if the plain popcorn lovers don't realize it.

However they cannot just say, "Well, if you don't like butter on your popcorn, you could eat something else."

JLV writes:

Late on the reply. In re: police unions supporting Republicans, note that the Fraternal order of Police (the largest national union for police officers) endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004 and McCain in 2008. (They backed Clinton in 1996 though.) In 2012 they endorsed no one, largely because of Romney's support for the Ohio union busting law, which did not exempt police officers.

Edogg writes:

Ian,

First of all, the employer isn't requiring union membership. The union, using the force of government, is requiring membership.

Well, suppose an employer that requires membership. Do you say that workers then don't have freedom of association? Since the state of Wisconsin is the employer in this blog post, I don't see how your distinction is meaningful.

Secondly, framing the workers choice like that is a fallacy. It just dodges the argument.

Imagine a movie theater has a policy of pouring butter on every bucket of popcorn, because butter lovers had gotten together and decided that EVERYONE should have to eat butter on their popcorn.

Maybe the butter lovers could make an argument saying that are somehow making the plain popcorn lovers better off, even if the plain popcorn lovers don't realize it.

However they cannot just say, "Well, if you don't like butter on your popcorn, you could eat something else."

I find this example to support my view. The moviegoers aren't forced to have butter on their popcorn. Their freedom to not consume butter on popcorn has been upheld. Analogously, workers have not been forced to join a union. If the government regulates movie theaters so that they must pour butter on their popcorn, the consumer's freedom to purchase food has been restricted even if they haven't been forced to have butter on their popcorn. But if the government owns a movie theater, does the choice of concessions offered meaningfully restrict or uphold the freedom of consumers to not purchase those concessions? Surely, people do not have anything like a natural right or a constitutional right to a diversity of concessions at a government owned movie theater. At least, I consider that a more artificial, legally created right than the "freedom of association" that I thought that David Henderson was referring to.

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