03/15/2011 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Non-Wage Collective Bargaining Is Part of a Small-Government Solution, Not Part of the Problem

Let's begin with an almost perversely-timed history lesson: 100 years ago (March 25, 1911, to be exact), 146 factory workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. The event was not only tragic but preventable, since many people were trapped in the building due to the fact that a number of the factory doors had been locked in order to prevent worker theft. This event is particularly relevant today, not only because we all have a natural tendency to pay attention to anniversaries, but also because the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy was the impetus for both the growth in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the formation of the New York State Factory Investigating Committee.

Now let's consider 2011 Wisconsin as opposed to 1911 New York. There has been a lot of discussion (and no clear verdict) on whether unionized workers in Wisconsin receive better pay and benefits than their equivalent non-unionized counterparts, and Governor Scott Walker has made it clear that he wants to do away with collective bargaining for most public-sector unions in order to gain some fiscal leverage and address the budget issues that the state of Wisconsin currently faces. I've watched this debate for a few weeks now without taking a strong position one way or the other, but recent events have made it clear that Governor Walker is (intentionally or not) missing the point entirely.

Rather than taking away collective bargaining over wages, which would logically be a helpful step in addressing a budget shortfall, the bill that was just voted on limits collective bargaining to matters of wages only. Granted, this change may have been made in order to argue that the bill is of a non-fiscal nature and thus was valid to vote on without the quorum required for votes on fiscal matters, but it nonetheless casts doubt on the true motivation behind Governor Walker's actions and highlights his misunderstanding of the true fiscal impact of his policies.

In contrast to much of what gets publicized about unions today, most unions were not formed in order to extract economic rents from employers in the form of higher wages and benefits. Instead, like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, many unions were formed in order to address issues that are mainly of a human rights nature. In general, we as a society in the United States have decided that inherent human rights include the right to not work in sweatshop conditions (unless of course workers are halfway around the world where we don't have to look at them every day), and, as such, the government has mandated a minimum wage, enacted laws regarding working hours and overtime, and created inspection bureaus for workplace safety. All of this comes at a cost, not only to the firms who have to meet the standards but also to the government (and, by extension, the taxpayers), since the government has to deploy resources in order to draft and enforce such laws.

Republicans are known for their focus on small government, but they need to be reminded that small government means "private solutions to problems when possible" as much as it means "let's cut social programs that we don't like so that rich people can keep more of their money." If unions are able to negotiate with employers (public or private) to maintain appropriate working conditions, then there is one less item for the government to expend resources defining and policing. (Even if workplace safety laws still exist, the enforcement cost goes way down if employers and employees are able to work things out amongst themselves.)

For this reason, the bill introduced by Governor Walker is likely to merely shift responsibility and resources (read, money) away from collective bargaining to more regulation and enforcement of standards, and the bill's impact on Wisconsin's budget is thus entirely unclear. What is clear, on the other hand, is that a power struggle has been won by a supposedly small-government Republican Party. Let's hope that this party does a better job with workplace safety enforcement than the state of New York did 100 years ago -- after the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory lost a civil suit brought by workers' families in 1913, one of the owners was arrested for again locking the factory doors during working hours. I somehow doubt the $20 fine that the owner subsequently received was more effective than the collective pressure of the company's work force would have been.

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