Excellent piece from Harvard economist Robert Barro in moday’s Wall Street Journal.
How ironic that Wisconsin has become ground zero for the battle between taxpayers and public- employee labor unions. Wisconsin was the first state to allow collective bargaining for government workers (in 1959), following a tradition where it was the first to introduce a personal income tax (in 1911, before the introduction of the current form of individual income tax in 1913 by the federal government).
Labor unions like to portray collective bargaining as a basic civil liberty, akin to the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion. For a teachers union, collective bargaining means that suppliers of teacher services to all public school systems in a state—or even across states—can collude with regard to acceptable wages, benefits and working conditions. An analogy for business would be for all providers of airline transportation to assemble to fix ticket prices, capacity and so on. From this perspective, collective bargaining on a broad scale is more similar to an antitrust violation than to a civil liberty.
In fact, labor unions were subject to U.S. antitrust laws in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was first applied in 1894 to the American Railway Union. However, organized labor managed to obtain exemption from federal antitrust laws in subsequent legislation, notably the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
Remarkably, labor unions are not only immune from antitrust laws but can also negotiate a “union shop,” which requires nonunion employees to join the union or pay nearly equivalent dues. Somehow, despite many attempts, organized labor has lacked the political power to repeal the key portion of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act that allowed states to pass right-to-work laws, which now prohibit the union shop in 22 states. From the standpoint of civil liberties, the individual right to work—without being forced to join a union or pay dues—has a much better claim than collective bargaining. (Not to mention that “right to work” has a much more pleasant, liberal sound than “collective bargaining.”) The push for right-to-work laws, which haven’t been enacted anywhere but Oklahoma over the last 20 years, seems about to take off.
The current pushback against labor-union power stems from the collision between overly generous benefits for public employees— notably for pensions and health care—and the fiscal crises of state and local governments. Teachers and other public-employee unions went too far in convincing weak or complicit state and local governments to agree to obligations, particularly defined-benefit pension plans, that created excessive burdens on taxpayers.