Epstein on Wisconsin Labor Battle

The Wisconsin Shoot Out on Public Unions
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
February 22, 2011

All too many of my recent columns have lamented the threat that public unions pose to the long-term political and financial stability of state government. Operating in their current pampered legal environment, unions have extracted extravagant settlements that are unsustainable in the long run. Now it turns out they are unsustainable in the short run as well. Tomorrow has become today as the ever-rising sea of red ink from union pensions and benefits overwhelms state budgets.

The rubber has now hit the road with the spate of overdue state initiatives to cut back on the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Ground zero is the extraordinary political spectacle in Wisconsin, where the Democrats took leave of the state (as well as their senses) once it became clear that they lacked the votes to stop Governor Scott Walker’s program to deflate the collective bargaining system for teachers. The governor has moved on two fronts. The first involves rolling back the oversized pensions and benefits that Wisconsin teachers currently enjoy. The second addresses the more basic question of why issues should be determined by collective bargaining in the first place. The bus-loads of union supporters from far and wide have their misshapen priorities correct. They know in their nervous bones that the second issue dwarfs the first.

Part of the pushback against Governor Walker was organized not in Madison, Wisconsin, but in Washington, D.C., spurred on by President Barack Obama, who has rightly treated Walker’s proposals as an "assault" on the labor movement. What Obama should have added is that this assault is long overdue. In principle, the deep problem with Walker’s proposal is that it seeks only to undermine state collective bargaining. The correct approach—in principle—is to kill off the beast once and for all across state lines, before it kills off everyone else.

Richard A. Epstein


Who has the pampered legal environment?

Where is the outrage about the pampered domestic oil, lumber and mining interests, among others, that have extracted huge subsidies and tax breaks though favorable legal and tax treatments?  Or the outrage about Google and other corporations engaging in sham international transactions for the sole purpose of avoiding paying US taxes?  Where is the outrage about the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of a few which is hollowing out the middle class in this country?  Robert Reich's analysis that the super-rich and large corporations have successfully waged class warfare on the the poor and middle class rings much truer than crocodile tears shed over the bargaining position of public unions.  These unions are in fact giving up substantial portions of previously obtained benefits and salaries as we speak, which is more than can be said for Wall Street. 

Let's not balance our budgets on the backs of underpaid teachers

The simple answer to the budget issues is that rather than rendering teachers even less able to protect their meager salaries, we should raise taxes on those best able to pay, those who have benefitted most from our society and those for whom the additional payments will impinge on nothing more than further asset hoarding.  Such an approach would also have the salutory benefit of correcting the country's increasing and increasingly destructive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. 

The Learned Professor Epstein

This is satire, right?  It means the opposite of what is said?

Where's the evidence for this argument?

Where is the evidence of a "pampered legal environment" in which unions operate?  The only legal environment of which I'm aware has been increasingly unfriendly to unions for some time. 

Also, President Obama has actually gone out of his way to stay out of this debate, likely to the chagrin of his union allies.  Where's the evidence that he has spurred on the organized pushback?

Really? because there is

Really? because there is evidence that Biden and Obama have actively behind the scenes been supporting and organizing to engage in the actions against walker, actually I do believe that Obama might have said as much once in a not so public forum.

If the beast needs to be

If the beast needs to be killed at once and all across state lines, can we at least be consistent and make certain that we kill the Wisconsin police, fire and other public safety unions as well?  Surely sick leave, jury duty pay and police pensions for officers who retire in their early 50s have an equally adverse impact on the Wisconsin public fisc?



One could argue, I guess,

One could argue, I guess, that paying teachers $50k/year with solid health and retirement benefits -- and receiving, as the public school students do in Wisconsin:  one of the best educations to be had in the United States -- is too much.  I prefer to think that we generally underpay/undervalue teachers, get what we (don't) pay for, and complain nevertheless as we fall behind a world that places a premium on public education.  I'm no economist, but it would seem that the econometrics of the issue favor the allocation of funds to public education systems that respond by producing better educated children.