Public Unions vs. the Real Underdog

by Chidem Kurdas

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker successfully made the financial case to limit collective bargaining by public unions. Not only have the unions imposed an immense burden on taxpayers, present and future, but they create bureaucratic rigidities that cause dysfunction and, in financial crunches, layoffs of promising employees.

Yet in recent weeks it has become noticeable that these points fail to persuade many Americans.  The Wisconsin bill that just passed and similar reforms in other states face furious opposition, including appeals to the public.  Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to highlight another aspect of government unions, in addition to the purely economic issues.

We need to understand why part of the public supports unions. The best explanation that I’ve seen is from Richard Epstein in Free Markets Under Siege, a 2005 book that analyzes unions and agricultural price supports as examples of cartels in different markets.  These cartels impose social costs and require special dispensation from antitrust law. Why did the rest of the population accept the costs?  “Never underestimate the enhanced political sympathy when the underdog seeks to gain state power,” Professor Epstein points out. Continue reading