Is There a Difference Between Public and Private Sector Unions?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 22, 2011

Why, yes! All the difference in the world. Will Wilkinson explains:

As Max Weber taught, the state is an institution distinguished by its claim to a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”. The principal task of political philosophy is to give an account of the conditions under which it is morally legitimate or justified for an exclusive group of people to get things done by threatening and applying coercion to the rest of the inhabitants of a certain territory. On the dominant liberal account, several things need to be true before some small subset of a population can be justified in pushing the rest of us around. First, it needs to solve a problem to which there is no voluntary or non-coercive solution. According to the standard story, only the artful application of credible threats of violence can deliver certain “public goods” without which we would all be worse off. This is, by and large, what the state is for. Of course, any state powerful enough to deliver the public goods and protect our rights is powerful enough to violate them. We each have ample reason to reject the authority of any state that does rely on the oversight and authorisation of those of us at the business end of police batons. The government of the state must take a form that minimises the chances of the abuse of state violence. According to both liberal theory and history, some form of representative democracy seems to be the ticket.

While the liberal-democratic state has proven better than the known alternatives, it creates a number of serious problems on the way to solving others. Among the greatest of these problems is maintaining a system of public finance that does not stray outside the bounds of liberal legitimacy. The power to tax and spend is necessary for the performance of the democratic state’s legitimate functions, but it is also a ready tool of exploitation and distributive injustice. An ideally legitimate state does nothing people can do better on voluntary terms, and it takes no more from people in taxes than is necessary to finance necessary public goods. But this is a moral target we never hit because the strategic logic of redistributive democracy reliably errs in the direction of expansion of services, deficit spending, and the abuse of taxpayers and other not-very-organised constituencies at the hands of highly-organised special interests. If we are concerned to minimise exploitation—if we care about the extent to which state violence is public-spirited and not merely criminal—we must go out of our way to acknowledge and guard against the abuses of fiscal democracy.

It is in the context of these concerns that we must consider the function of public-sector unions. If they do anything at all, it is to protect their members’ claims on future government revenue from democratic discretion—to limit the power of the elected representatives of the democratic public to set the terms on which union-members will receive transfers from taxpayers. That these transfers come to workers in the form of compensation for services rendered the government seems to confuse a lot people. This is, I think, why people on both sides of the debate are distracted by the question of whether government workers are or are not “overpaid”. To my mind, the real question is whether government workers should be granted special legal powers that (a) are unavailable to other groups whose welfare also turns on transfers from the treasury, or on the size of compulsory transfers from their bank accounts to the treasury, and (b) limit democratic sovereignty over the distribution of the burdens and benefits of the system of public finance.

Wilkinson goes on to note that the presence of public sector unions, and the way they are treated in the political system, means that public sector union members get advantages over other citizens in a liberal democratic political entity. This is a blow to democracy itself, as political systems are forced to choose favorites amongst the populace–potentially violating the explicit demands of voters in doing so. Private sector unions don’t bring about this form of “exploitative redistribution,” as Wilkinson calls it. This gives a sense of legitimacy to private sector unions that their public sector counterparts simply lack–all of which serves to justify the actions of people like Scott Walker from a public policy and philosophical standpoint.

  • Alan

    How does one justify private sector unions, though?

    Let’s say I own a business. One day the employees get together and vote themselves a union. They make unrealistic demands. Assuming the state government grants me the right to fire the whole lot and start all over again, I am forced against my will a choice between bearing the cost of keeping my employees and the cost of firing and replacing them. The latter choice is a lot easier for a taco joint than a high-tech firm. Isn’t unionism essentially a form of legalized racketeering?

    • Pejman Yousefzadeh

      One can certainly make that case. But to paraphrase Orwell, perhaps some forms of legalized racketeering are more justifiable than others.

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