Are collective bargaining rights really that great?

Worker rights are important. But perhaps workers should demand individual rights, not collective ones.

M.P. King / AP
State Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, and other Assembly Democrats approach the front of the chamber in outrage as their Republican counterparts cut off debate and voted on the budget repair bill in session at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning, Feb. 25, 2011. Are collective bargaining rights really what workers should be fighting for?

The Wisconsin fight over public sector unions is an interesting one. The Governor and an apparent majority of legislators are trying to pass a law that would change the way most state employees organize, in addition to financial issues. The touchstone issue is whether workers will keep their collective bargaining rights. At least, that's the way it is being phrased in the media. But I wonder if that phrasing obscures the matter.

Consider the phrasing of this Gallup poll (which was the top story in yesterday's USA Today).

Would you favor or oppose a law in your state taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers union?

Yikes. Even a cold-hearted economist like me isn't in favor of TAKING AWAY stuff from others. Let alone taking away their RIGHTS. That sounds mean, which is why 61 percent of respondents were opposed. No doubt, the response would be different if the question involved trade-offs, which is what real-world choices are about. For example:

Would you favor a law in your state ending collective bargaining for public-sector workers or higher taxes on your children over the next few decades?


Would you favor a law in your state ending collective bargaining for public-sector workers so that they could have individual bargaining rights?


Would you favor a law in your state ending collective bargaining for public-sector workers so that the state could offer higher salaries to the best teachers?

The fact is that worker rights are important. But I wonder why the issue is not framed in terms of the contrast between individual rights versus collective rights. Clearly, a collective is hostile to the flexibility that would allow merit to be finely recognized and rewarded. No? I just don't understand why a worker in a modern service-sector economy would even want collective rights. I understand their importance for a muscle-driven industrial economy where powerful firms can exploit labor. But America isn't that country, especially not when the employer is a state government. But perhaps I don't know the brutal history of Wisconsin's autocratic rulers.

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