Guest Post: Prof. Art Lerman on Collective Bargaining’s Strange Troubles

scott-walker-power-to-koch-bros-no-unions-for-you1WALTER REUTHER

The Attack on Collective Bargaining

Why the attack on collective bargaining? After all, collective bargaining is a rather rational—civilized—idea: employers and employees seeking agreement on terms and conditions of employment, while listening to each other’s needs and concerns.

Moreover, there is no legal responsibility to come to an agreement. If the bargaining does not work out, each side is free to pursue its interests outside the collective bargaining framework.

So what’s the issue—especially with state governments that have been in the forefront of attacks on collective bargaining—passing legislation eliminating the “right” of their public employee representatives to collectively bargain with their governmental employer on specific issues, or on all issues?

The anti-collective bargaining argument is that collective bargaining has led to public employees forcing governments (and, therefore, citizens) to give them much too much—creating a privileged public employee class, leaving the state government and its citizens with insufficient funds for themselves.

And  enabling this theft of state government and citizen  assets  are the public employee unions—sitting on the other side of the collective bargaining table—using their electoral power—votes and financial contributions to candidates—coercing the government and the citizens it represents to impoverish themselves for the sake of public employees’ luxurious  living.

There are a few immediate observations the above argument gives rise to:

  1. There’s an assumption that public employees are getting more than they deserve, economically putting the government and other citizens in economic peril. This, however, is a debatable assumption.
  1. If there is a problem as described, it’s not collective bargaining but the power of the unions. This power is manifested at the collective bargaining table, but it is independent of it—and would exist and be used to support the demands of the employees through other channels, if collective bargaining was eliminated.
  1. And, with or without collective bargaining, these other channels remain and are also used by employers and employees to trade ideas and press their demands.
  1. Indeed, this brings us to the crux of the matter: Collective bargaining is a positive institution—perhaps the best available venue for employers and employees to negotiate with one another —all the alternatives being less efficacious.
  1. Collective bargaining is positive because it is a direct, face-to-face discussion. Each side can directly communicate to the other side its needs, wants, arguments, and its view of its own power.
  2. All the other methods that are used to communicate—and which remain—whether or not there is collective bargaining—are less efficient means of communication. They more easily lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities and unfounded/untested conclusions.
  1. Legislative Lobbying: For example, with or without collective bargaining, both the employers (the state government) and employees seek the support of state legislatures for their positions on employee-employer issues–sending messages, supports and sanctions to the legislators. This dynamic will always exist in a free society—but it is not as efficient in negotiating issues as experienced employer and employee representatives in discussion together at the table.
  1.      ii.          Media: And they send messages through the media—giving interviews, writing letters, sending press releases. All these are okay, but, as with communication with legislators, do not amount to the detailed exchanges needed for mutual understanding and future planning.
  1.    iii.          Electoral Campaigns: Of course there are also campaign contributions and messages to candidates—again, of value, but even more removed from specifics and likely to be more rhetorical and less prone to working out mutual understandings.
  1.    iv.          Unilateral Actions: And there are job actions on the part of employees and unilateral decisions on the part of employers—easily giving rise to resentment, misunderstanding and hardening of positions—especially since, as unilateral, the other side is less likely to feel it had the proper input.

The point is that doing away with collective bargaining does nothing to control the power of unions—for good or ill. It simply takes away an excellent institution within which unions and their employers can communicate, leaving less efficient methods to take on more responsibility than they are capable of handling well.

Good Management: And there is a larger concern about communication. Communication between employers and employees is a crucial factor in good management. How can one manage an organization well without communicating with the leadership of one’s employees?

Governors (and bosses in the private sector) who decry collective bargaining are saying that they’d prefer to be bad managers—assuming they know their employees concerns, but with no way to sit down with the employees to seek deeper understandings and further exploration.

Why would they do this? One the one hand, it’s because they think they know enough about their employees’ situations without investigation—a questionable assumption in our world of large, complex, fast-changing, diverse organizations.

Scapegoating: But, on the other hand, it seems clear from news reports, that they are not thinking about employee needs or communication—or about good management at all. They oppose collective bargaining for reasons of political posturing. Faced with fiscal challenges, and citizens always concerned about taxes, they have chosen to make public employee union power the scapegoat, loudly attacking unions, and arguing that collective bargaining is the evil Trojan horse that has led to union triumphs over the government’s and the citizens’ fiscal wellbeing.

The fact that eliminating collective bargaining will not reduce union power, that union power is not the reason for the states’ and the citizens’ fiscal challenges, that the only guaranteed result of the elimination of collective bargaining will be worse management—these conclusions argue for a different approach which, unfortunately, does not fit well with politicians who are antiunion under any fiscal circumstances and who want to eliminate crucial governmental  services—whether badly or well managed.

Income Inequality: Yes, there is a final issue. The current attacks have been on the “too generous” salaries and benefits of public employees attained through collective bargaining. . Most citizens do not have such benefits; why should public employees?

The conclusion: measurably reduce public employee salaries and benefits, or at least prevent them from increasing.

But there is another solution. If public employee salaries and benefits are so far ahead of those  of the rest of the citizenry (a questionable conclusion), is the answer to cut back on the public employee salaries and benefits or to extend these better salaries and benefits to the rest of the citizens?

After all, one of the analyses of why income inequality has so much increased in the U.S.—leaving private employees behind—is that union power and collective bargaining have been taken away from most private sector employees. If private sector employees had unions to fight for them—and represent them in collective bargaining—they might catch up to public employees in salaries and benefits—reducing income inequality in our society overall.

Just  one more thing: Let’s say a law is passed precluding collective bargaining. Yet, subsequently, an issue comes up among the employees. And then, the union leader knocks on the governor’s door —or happens to see him eating in a restaurant—or walking in the park—or maybe even playing at the golf course.  You mean the union leader can’t mention it? They can’t discuss it? Isn’t that a violation of human relations—a violation of the basic concern of for one’s fellow human being?


Blogger’s Note- As readers may know, Professor Lerman is a political scientist with 40 years of post-Princeton grad school teaching and a specialist in conflict resolution (which includes collective bargaining). He is also the co-author in progress of our book-to-be:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s