What is collective bargaining?

Everybody seems to like to argue about the importance of collective bargaining rights; it is even enshrined in the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights — but do we really even know what the term means? Where does this supposed “right” come from? We’re not a nation built of positive rights (rights to be given something good), but of negative rights (rights to be free of interference).

The right to peaceful assembly is one negative right — no one can stop you from joining a voluntary group as long as you don’t harm anyone while in the group.  The right to assembly then directly translates into our right to unionize. We all have the right to get together in any setting or in any situation and form groups, even in the workplace.  (Of course, employers also have a right to fire people who unionize.)  However, being in a union does not do any good unless it has some power; that’s where collective bargaining comes in.

Collective bargaining is the ability for a union to advocate for certain benefits in the workplace. That means that you are able to negotiate with your employer for higher wages, better working conditions, more benefits, etc., just as you would individually, but as a union which gives you more power.

But is it good for public employees to be able to do that? Is it okay for them to demand more money from the government which ultimately comes from taxpayers? Would it be acceptable if the government was shut down because employees decided they were not receiving enough compensation? What if emergency personnel such as police officers and EMTs went on strike?

While I do believe that all people, including public employees, have the right to unionize and collectively bargain, they do not have the right to bully employers. The employer always has the right to fire its employees if they are not willing to cooperate. This applies to public employees as well, especially when vital government functions are being threatened. In 1981, the air-traffic controllers’ union demanded a $681 million increase for its employees. When the FAA refused, the union went on strike which put business at a halt and people were unable to fly. The next day, then President Reagan gave the members of the union an ultimatum:  Show up to work in 48 hours or be fired, and that is exactly what he did. On August 5, 11,000 air-traffic controllers were fired and business went back to normal.

This example illustrates two important points:  that employee rights are not above employer rights, and that public employees cannot strike due to the functions that they perform. This is also directly relevant to the issue of collective bargaining rights being limited for public employees in Wisconsin. Should public employees continue to be able to fight for more money from taxpayers during an economic recession and massive deficits and debt?

The only good answer to such a question is that it is up to the employer, or in this case, employers. When Scott Walker ran for office, he promised to make tough cuts and to give local governments the power they needed to balance the budget, and that is exactly what he did. He used his employer rights to balance the budget without raising taxes by changing the terms of negotiation.

Obviously, collective bargaining is a right inherent to us all, but so is the right to deny the demands of any group or individual. We cannot allow union rights to supersede those of employers, especially not the government, as elected officials simply represent the people. Our country and our state are going through tough economic times, and we all must be willing to take a little bit of a cut.

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