Monday, March 28, 2011

Government Sector Unions-Becker

by Gary Becker

The Becker-Posner Blog

March 27, 2011

The main story of unions during the past half-century in the United States is the sharp decline in union membership to only 7% of private sector workers, and the equally sharp growth of union membership to 36% of all government employees. Nor are these trends unique to America; for example, union members declined to about 15% of all British private sector workers, and unions are much more important among public-sector workers.

Unions declined over time in the private sector in most developed countries partly because of the shift from manufacturing with large plants, where unions have been strong, to the service sector with small establishments, where unions have been weak. Other factors reducing unionization include the growth of competition from imports, and the sharp expansion over time of the welfare state. The latter has meant that governments are providing medical benefits and other services that had been provided by unions. As Posner indicates, an important reason for the growth of unions among government employees has been the expansion of government. This expansion increased the number of government employees, and gave them a more powerful voice as voters, and as contributors to political campaigns.

Employees in companies should be able to bargain collectively with employers if they so wish. However, employees should not have the right to monopoly power when they bargain, no more than employers should have this right. Yet while employers are subject to anti-trust laws that forbid collusions and other monopolistic practices, unions were exempt from the anti-trust laws by the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, reinforced by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This exemption meant that unions had the legal right to organize workers in whole industries or occupations, which would give unions some monopoly control over hiring, and the supply of workers to industries and occupations. Unions exercise this power by threatening to strike and to withhold the labor of their members.

The right to bargain collectively should also be available to government workers. Yet since these workers face only limited competition from the private sector and from other governments, they should not have the monopoly power that comes with the right to strike. Regrettably, many government unions do have this option. Strikes give government unions significant monopoly power over the public purse because they can use a strike to shut down transportation services, garbage collection, and other vital public services.


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