Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The free market can benefit Wisconsin workers and taxpayers

By Harrison Searles

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Whether it is the throng of protesters outside and within the Wisconsin State Capitol holding posters with witty one-liners, or students outside the Student Union flying the red flag of socialism, the shadow of Scott Walker’s new budget has been cast across the United States. Despite the impression of the situation prima facie, the recent protests have provided an opportunity uniting for both those progressives who desire strong workers’ rights and those conservatives who desire minimizing the government’s role in society. The reason for this is that even though Walker is determined to take away the public workers’ unions the ability to bargain collectively, he is only doing so for the unions of state employees. The workers in the private sphere are still left free to collectively bargain, and this provides a perfect opportunity for disillusioned workers to provide an alternative to what will soon be the collective-bargaining-free services of Wisconsin on the free market. This serves both the interests of progressives and conservatives there in that not only will it reduce the role of the government in that state, but it will also provide workers now in the public sector with a choice to move to the private.

Like it or not, Walker will most likely succeed in his efforts at ending collective bargaining among public employees in Wisconsin. As a result, if we believe what those on the left have been saying about this, it will leave the individual worker helpless when it comes to the demands of his employer. Instead of the entire work force being able to unite against demands like increased work hours and pay cuts, they will now be shoved down each worker’s throat under the treat of being fired. Again, I emphasize that this is if we believe that what the legions of protesters outside of the state legislature in Madison.

Then again, if we believe what Walker and his supporters say, the unions are bullies that are able to collude with politicians and provide the unionized workers with an excessive level of income for the jobs that they do which are paid by taxpayers, who also do not only have no seat at the bargaining table, but is not even in the room. In this narrative, the public unions symbolize all that is wrong with American politics, because they represent a privileged class that is able to extort wealth by political means.

It would seem that these two narratives of events in Wisconsin are opposed and incompatible. However, that is not true since the two opposing sides are both taking stands on different issues: One is taking a stand against what is perceived to be an affront against one of the most basic rights of workers and another is taking a stand on the perceived privileges of a certain class and the dire fiscal conclusions that result from them. Any plan that could hope to somehow bring the two together would have to rely on the fact that the two parties are opposed on different issues, thus providing some room to provide a solution to the problem amenable to both.

This can be done by providing workers with options of employment but nevertheless reducing the amount of money that the state government has to spend. The easy way is to privatize many of the services that are now in the public sphere but whose workers will, if Walker’s plan is passed, will no longer have the right to bargain collectively. For example, the teachers’ union has been one of the most outspoken groups in protesting the action and has also been able to gain some sympathy. Indeed, they have managed to make this an issue of workers’ rights, but also an issue about education by asserting that without a powerful union behind teachers the quality of the service provided by schools will be diminished.

Perhaps this is all true, but what is the key element here is not the fact that the public employees’ collective bargaining rights have been curtailed, but that the workers do not have another source of employment. A singular employer, the state, has a monopoly over some services and their employees have no other choice to practice their set of skills. Unlike in an industry where there is healthy competition, a school teacher can offer their skills to a competitor, like a Catholic or private school, only very rarely and often with difficulty. As a result, the individual school teacher is stuck with that single employer that has the vast majority of the market in their hands and must give in to that employer’s demands to keep the job. If there is any violation of workers’ rights in Wisconsin, it is because of this lack of competing employers for employees to go to, not the curtailment of collective-bargaining.

By opening up this market to competitors, it would be a boon to the workers since they would be able to offer their services to multiple employers and take the package that they value the most. If company-X does not let the employees collectively bargain then they can move over to company-Y that will, and if company-Y does not let them neither does Z then they can create their own company. Furthermore, if it is true, as the teachers’ union has so asserted, that the quality of education is reduced without collective bargaining then those companies that do allow it will naturally rise to the top in a market.

Thus it would seem that opening markets now dominated by the state of Wisconsin to more competition would benefit workers by giving employees a greater choice of employers and provide an opportunity for the teachers’ union to prove that collective bargaining increases the quality of their service.

In the end, there is a position that can both broaden the rights of workers while at the same time do so without putting stress on Wisconsin’s budget, or any other state for that matter. This is by opening up sectors now essentially monopolized by the state to competition by private companies thereby giving workers in those sectors a wider set of employers to choose and providing another source for the services that the government has now has the burden of providing. Such a program would be a benefit for both concerns regarding the rights of workers and the fiscal sustainability and role of the state thus making it a potential way of settling the differences between the two camps.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]

2 Comments

2 Responses to “The free market can benefit Wisconsin workers and taxpayers”

  1. AJ on March 9th, 2011 2:50 am

    Haha, no. Private employers are much, MUCH worse than the state when it comes to union-busting. Some companies will fire you just for talking about maybe forming a union at some point in the distant future.

    As for the idea that “if company-X does not let the employees collectively bargain then they can move over to company-Y that will”, that is absolutely ridiculous. When one company decides to ban unions, all its competitors immediately do the same. If company X won’t let you bargain collectively, you can bet that company Y won’t, either. You know why? Because smashing unions allows you to pay your workers lower wages, which reduces your costs and makes your company more profitable. Private businesses do not compete to improve workers’ conditions and wages, they compete to drive down wages and benefits.

    And by the way, if you want to find a “privileged class that is able to extort wealth by political means”, look no further than Wall Street.

  2. EJ Clairmont on March 17th, 2011 2:58 am

    Belief in the free market is nothing more than an submission to human greed. Throwing around that term like it represents a tangible entity in society and economics is intellectually vapid.

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