Feb 18, 2011

Should public-sector employees have the right to organize?

I live in Madison, so I’m in the thick of the protests that are now national news. I am both a full-time and a part-time public-sector employee. I’m a senior editor at UW-Madison; I teach part-time at Madison College. Gov. Walker’s bill would cut my net pay about 8.5%.

But paying more for my benefits has nothing to do with my opposition. As a reasonable person, I’m able to look at the situation and make a sacrifice if necessary. I’m protesting because the bill effectively ends collective bargaining for every public union except the few that supported Walker in the election.

Unfortunately, national coverage of the protest has focused on the easy story rather than the crucial one.

This morning Joe Scarborough went into an astonishingly ill-informed, 10-minute rant about teachers (and by implication, other public employees).

“Children are not learning in Wisconsin today,” Joe railed, “because teachers don’t want to pay the same … money for benefits that the rest of Americans have to pay. How sick is that?”

I immediately sent Morning Joe a message explaining how the show’s host completely missed the point. 

About a minute later, with much less bravado, Joe said, “One of the big things going on in Wisconsin is that the governor is trying to eliminate collective bargaining, which raises a much larger question: Should public unions have collective bargaining?”

To that question—the crux of the issue—Walker says no. I say yes.

During a discussion on the issue on my Facebook wall, a friend posted: “Kyle, it’s important to remember that without the private sector, there cannot be a public sector.”

“Agreed,” I replied, “but it’s equally important to remember that without the public sector, there cannot be a private sector—at least not a civilized one.“

If there were not educators teaching us, the private sector would have no customers who could read well enough to buy its products. If there were no police and firefighters protecting us, families would have no hope of feeling safe in their homes. If there were no inspectors keeping our food and buildings safe, we couldn’t go to the grocery store without fear. No roads, no traffic lights, no courts, no high-end research.

No America as we know it.

“The public sector needs to answer and be accountable to the people,” another friend said. “On what grounds do public employees feel that they have the right to bargain with taxpayer funded positions?”

The question assumes that public employees are in a fundamentally different position vis a vis their employers than private-sector employees. And that is the case only if public-sector employment depends on the private sector in some special way.

I deny it. I say that the public sector depends on the private sector no more or less than the private sector depends on the public sector. They are equally important and equally important to each other. Two strands in the helix of America’s DNA.

We used to know this. We’ve forgotten it because for a generation we’ve been steeped almost exclusively in a radical free-enterprise storyline that tells us “government is the problem, not the solution.”

No, we—private sector and public sector—are both the problem and the solution. Pitting one sector against the other is easy but counter-productive. We need each other, so we need to be reasonable. Stripping public employees of the right to negotiate working conditions with a unified voice does violence to both America's and Wisconsin's traditions of fair play.

Rings true to me. And you?


  1. Rings true to me. Thank you for your careful, well-thought words, Kyle.