A Few Thoughts on Wisconsin and Unions

At the risk of losing some of my libertarian street cred, I have to say that I feel a lot of sympathy for the public employee members in Wisconsin. Even if you think that their salaries and benefits are excessive, those benefits and wages were contractually agreed to by their employers, and I’m sure that in many cases people have planned their retirements on the assumption that these contracts would be honored.

On the other hand, if having public employee unions leads to workers receiving promises of future pensions and benefits that can’t or won’t be met, then that could be a reason to reconsider whether public employee unions are such a great idea going forward. The Church recognizes the right of workers to unionize, but this right is fundamentally based not on any the supposedly good consequences that unions have for workers, but rather as an application of the right of private association. As John Paul II noted in Centesimus Annus, (“the Church’s defence and approval of the establishment of what are commonly called trade unions [is] certainly not because of ideological prejudices or in order to surrender to a class mentality, but because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.”

I’m willing to accept correction on this, but it seems to me that if the right to unionization is based in the right to association, then it would seem that the union relationship ought to be voluntary for all the parties involved. Forcing workers to join a union or forcing an employer to deal with a union on certain terms strikes me as being contrary to people’s association rights, not a fulfillment of them. In the case of public employee unions, the government is the employer, and so should have a wide latitude to decide to what extent it is willing to bargain with unions and to what extent it isn’t.

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