Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Should public employees have the right to unionize?

The first question is, I think, whose interests do the legislative and executive branches of government respond. The legislators are elected, and the highest offices in the executive branches are either elected or appointed (often with ratification by the legislators). Clearly they are accountable to the voters, who are both the tax payers funding government and the beneficiaries of government services. For larger political bodies, the cost of running for office also gives the sources of campaign finance access and thus influence with the elected officials.

The second question is do public employees have rights of association. I thing that is clear also. In our society they do. No one would dream of objecting to professional associations of teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, etc., nor would we object to police benevolent associations or parent-teacher associations. Volunteer fire fighters, and it has been estimated the 71 percent of fire fighters in the United States are volunteers, are by the very nature of their service in voluntary associations.

Are associations of public employees useful. The people who work day to day, week to week, month to month a school, a police force, a hospital or any other public service have specific, detailed knowledge of what goes on where they work, and it seems obvious that the public benefits if the public employees can organize to organize that knowledge and make it available to the public and to the legislative and executive branches of their government. Indeed, we depend on medical professionals organizing to improve and share medical knowledge, on educators organizing to develop and share the knowledge basic to their professions. And indeed, we are a people who love to organize into clubs and societies and public employees too get personal pleasure out of their associations. So clearly there are public and private benefits to association of public employees.

Are there limits to what an association of public employees are allowed to do. Obviously. In some countries public employees organize criminal activity, such as graft and extortion, and get away with it. That would not and should not be accepted in this country. In some situations we can not allow public employees to go on strike -- air traffic controllers or surgeons can not leave their posts in wildcat strikes or people will die.

The tough issue is where we should draw that limit. Should public employee associations have the right to collective bargaining on salaries, working conditions, pensions, and benefits? Are there rights to collective action such as strikes or slow downs that can and should be granted. Can we grant rights to strike to garbage men but not to police officers? Again, it seems to me that it would be stupid to deny nurses the right to bargain collectively about the safety of their workplace or patient load, as it would be counterproductive to deny teachers the right to bargain about class size.

Given that legislators and top government executives are so dependent on voters and campaign finance, it seems to me important to allow public employees to bargain collectively about pay and for them to organize to support political candidates.

In the spirit of full disclosure of interests, I was always in professional ranks or management in government and did not belong to a union until joining the part time faculty at a university.

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