The Sources of Public Unrest with Public Unions
The recent events in Wisconsin and Indiana, where elected legislators fled from their states to avoid voting on issues where they and their public-sector union patrons would lose, followed by union protests and counter-protests, are part of a recurring dynamic of history where a group that has grown accustomed to the benefits of a set of governing prerogatives is having its prerogatives challenged — and fighting not to have to give them up. I know that members of public employee unions bristle sincerely at being told they are “privileged”, so let me be specific about what I mean: public sector unions have been granted a set of governing privileges within the institutional framework of American democracy — privileges that conflict with the ideals that the system is based upon.
The ideals themselves are not the source of contention; most Americans today, union and non-union alike, agree on a basic set of ideals that governments should respect; that all men are created equal and possess certain inalienable rights sums them up pretty well. But the genius of modern democratic government is supposed to be that it depends not solely only on ideals, but also on a set of institutional arrangements that can protect those ideals from imperfect humans who will not always live up to them. The institutions relevant to what is happening now date back at least to seventeenth-century England, where specific steps were taken to guarantee that kings and nobles who still held real power (including James II, who was floating the idea of returning to an absolute monarchy around that time) could not undermine or reverse the notions of equality and rights that were gaining serious traction. Government had to find a way to allocate a portion of the people’s resources to a central authority so that it could carry out its functions while still defending the idea that no one — not even the king himself — had a right to make a claim on the life and livelihood of another indefinitely into the future.
Balance was achieved by requiring the executive branch of government (the king in the English Bill of Rights, later the President in the American Constitution) to continually return to the people to secure financing. Two requirements were most prominent 1) the property of the citizens — which included their future income — could only be appropriated with the approval of a body of the elected representatives of the people, and 2) appropriations could only be authorized for a limited time. These are probably not what you think of as the most exciting features of democratic machinery, but they were important checks on the power of the king and his lords and continue to be important checks on the power of democratic governments today. Not only did these rules prevent a king from taking resources to fund a royal court in perpetuity, but they prevented any organ of government, including the legislature, from authorizing permanent funding for anyone. Whatever tasks that government undertook, the executive would have to come back each year for the necessary appropriations and each year the representatives of the people would have to renew their decision to provide resources to the government.
These principles, that only the representatives of the people acting in concert could legitimately appropriate the property of the people, and that not even the legitimate authority could lay claims on the property of the people indefinitely into the future, have lived on in Western democratic governance largely unchanged. Of course, here in the United States, the creation of royal courts was never at issue, but ultimately more important than denying a formal place in government to people with hereditary titles or silly hats was the durability of the principle that there was no authority higher than the legislature elected by the people that could compel taxes to be raised or programs or personnel to be funded — including decisions made by previous legislatures. The final word on what is to be funded during a legislative session was the legislature itself (with a few exceptions related to the principle of separation of powers, e.g. the legislature cannot zero-out the salaries of certain parts of the other branches of government).
Except that, over the past half-century, a major exception was allowed to creep into the system. One class of organization, the public-sector union (with the support of some politicians), began to assert rights to make long-term claims on the property of the citizenry. A view grew uncritically within the governing and political classes that agreements made through exclusive “collective bargaining” processes — processes oftentimes closed or secret — and codified into a contractual form can bind the body of elected representatives of the people into making certain appropriations. Public sector unions insist that, in order to pay for their pension and health care arrangements, they are to receive hundreds of millions of dollars straight off of the top of the tax levy collected from the citizens each year, perhaps for decades into the future, and that legislatures should not (and maybe cannot) exercise independent judgment regarding this piece of the annual appropriation, unless they first secure union blessing. And as the flight from Wisconsin has demonstrated, unions and their allies in the Democratic party now go as far as to support the idea that if a legislature intends to act in way that unions do not accede to, then the legislative process must be halted.
In other words, public-sector unions have been allowed, and want to continue, appropriations prerogatives that would be prohibited to kings.
Yes, it would be hyperbolic to say current practices define a full-blown return to aristocracy, but if you believe that human nature remains the same across time, that we 21th Century Americans are not intrinsically different from the 18th Century Americans who wrote the appropriations limitations into the US Constitution, or the 17th Century Englishmen who wrote similar provisions into the English Bill of Rights, then giving a certain class of people — be they royalty, corporate bosses, or union members — an exclusive process that does not involve the consent of everyone involved for appropriating what they want from the public, then the result to be expected is the privileged class taking more and more, ultimately at the expense of the greater good, until people outside of the class granted the special prerogatives begin to push back.
This is not a dig at unions, this is a dig at human nature. The goal of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is not to punish public-sector unions, but to end their privileges to make long-term claims on taxpayers, allowed to no other group in society, that have thrown the political system into imbalance. It is perfectly reasonable, for example, for Governor Walker to propose replacing a system where unions decide what their raises should be in an extralegislative process and then require the legislature to fit that expense into the budget with a system that instead requires raises to be approved by the legislature on equal footing along with the rest of the items in the budget. For as long as one group is given a special process for taking appropriations that takes precedence over the independent judgment of an assembly of the representatives of the people, the contentiousness we are experiencing today will persist, as people not granted special prerogatives wonder why one group gets to go to the head of the line in the appropriations process, while the group that enjoys its advantages continues to use them to press for further ones.