When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker attempted to curtail collective bargaining by government employees in his state, public sector unions and their lapdogs in the Democratic party did absolutely everything in their power to stop him. They fled the capital, they tried to stack the State Supreme Court, and they tried to recall Scott Walker. The media termed this a conflict over “collective bargaining rights,” but applying the term “right” to the process of union bargaining is fundamental misnomer, doubly so in the context of public sector unions.
The right to collectively bargain for private unions didn’t exist in the United States until the 1935 Wagner Act, a crucial part of the FDR’s New Deal. Prior to the act, unions were vulnerable to accusations of price fixing under antitrust statutes. For 159 years in the history of this country, collective bargaining for private sector employees was far from a right.
But even FDR, a staunch supporter of private unions, considered public unions “unthinkable and intolerable.” That sentiment was fairly uniform across the public spectrum. In 1955, George Meaney, president of the AFL-CIO, said “it is impossible to collectively bargain with the government.”
That all changed in 1960, when President John F. Kennedy gave federal employees the right to negotiate wages and salaries. That decision set off a golden age of public sector unionism, which lasted in many states until very recently. Conservative governors across the country have taken aim at collective bargaining as a principle cause of the crisis in state budgets.
But what the government giveth it surely has the right to take away. What is enacted through legislation may be repealed through legislation. We should keep that in mind when the subject of collective bargaining “rights” comes up.