As Union Debate Intensifies, Questions Arise Over Propriety of Collective Bargaining

Battles over state policies concerning public employee unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, and elsewhere have focused some attention on a question some conservatives have been asking for years: should collective bargaining be legal in the public sector?

Sen. Jim DeMint made headlines Wednesday when he made a forceful statement against the practice. "I really don't think that collective bargaining has any place in representative government," DeMint told WVOC radio. He labeled the ties between government and PEUs an "insidious relationship."

DeMint touched on the inherently problematic relationship between politicians and PEU leaders: in negotiations over pay or benefits, both parties - politicians and union leaders - have a vested interest in paying unions more. Obviously unions want more for their members, and many politicians are often more than happy to spend tax dollars to secure union support.

The benefits for those politicians often outweigh the potential loss of political support, since the costs of raising pay or benefits are dispersed throughout the entire tax base and hidden among the litany of other government expenditures. The benefits afforded unions, on the other hand, are concentrated and more apparent.

The people forced to foot the bill, meanwhile, only have a seat at the table to the extent that their representatives actually advance their interest in union negotiations - which is by no means a given, for the reasons listed above.

While collective bargaining in the private sector entails a balance of power between employer and employee (regardless of whether or not that balance actually exists), public sector unions are inherently adversarial towards the taxpayer. "Right or wrong," wrote Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi last week, "public employee unions can only revolt against the public."

It is that unfortunate fact that has driven DeMint to oppose collective bargaining for public sector unions. But the "insidious relationship" to which DeMint referred assumes that politicians will not represent taxpayers' interests in union negotiations - i.e. that they will not take on the adversarial role equivalent to that of a private sector employer, who tries to minimize costs and maximize the bang for his buck.

But with a crop of politicians - most of them Republicans, though not all - elected last year on promises of reforming state finances and getting budgets under control, the traditional PEU-politician relationship may be changing. Here's what New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had to say about collective bargaining rights for PEUs in his state:

Unfortunately, many politicians - mostly Democrats, due to public sector unions' lopsided support for that party - still rely on political support from PEUs. Republican victories in 2010 swept in a number of governors who were vociferously opposed by public sector unions, so the adversarial relationship is a bit more natural for them.

But can the country really rely on a crop of Chris Christies - state executives who fulfill the representative role necessary for a functional relationship between public employee unions and state governments? They are few and far between, so the "insidious relationship" is likely to continue.