Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Setting it straight on 'rights'

By Tim Peterson, Robert J. Simandl And John J. Maddente 
Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 3.15.2011

Right, noun: A just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive or moral.

That's the definition of a word used by Wisconsin's public-sector unions demanding to retain all collective bargaining privileges.

For weeks, we've heard demonstrators beating drums in Madison alongside equally vocal sympathizers in the media talking about "rights" of public-sector union employees and "attacks" on "the middle class." We respectfully disagree with them.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, collective bargaining is "A process of negotiation between representatives of workers (usually labor union officials) and management to determine the conditions of employment. The agreement reached may cover not only wages but hiring practices, layoffs, promotions, working conditions, hours and benefit programs."

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2, in Constitutional Law, says rights are classified as natural, civil and political. Natural rights are believed to grow out of the nature of the individual human being such as rights to life, liberty, privacy and pursuit of happiness. Civil rights belong to every citizen and are not connected with the organization or administration of government. They include rights of property, marriage, protection by law, freedom to contract, trial by jury and the like.

Political rights entail power to participate in the establishment or administration of government, such as the right of citizenship, the right to vote and the right to hold public office.

Therefore since collective bargaining is neither a natural, civil nor political right, at best, it is a "right" only in the colloquial sense of the term and merely a privilege in a purely constitutional sense.

Further, nothing in Wisconsin's Declaration of Rights (found in the state constitution) guarantees a right to collective bargaining for any citizen.

While the bill has caused controversy, it enables distributed bargaining and pushes down negotiations to local levels - where, in our view, they belonged in the first place. We are bothered by the oft-used phrase of an "assault on the middle class" pertaining to public-sector union employees who possess Cadillac health care benefits and retirement plans the rest of us only dream of. And, as 15% of the workforce, public-sector unions hardly constitute the sweeping characterization of "Wisconsin's middle class."

The fact is, at the local level in many rural Wisconsin communities, public employment has become a fiefdom of privilege where, owing to binding interest arbitration based upon comparability, the never-ending spiral of wage and benefit improvements often results in local government compensation exceeding community "middle class" standards. The need to bargain virtually every operational issue makes implementing policy decisions and providing services a protracted struggle, often ending in arbitration.

Perhaps this is why President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the patron saint of the American labor movement warned: "All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations . . . The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for . . . officials . . . to bind the employer . . . The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives."

We believe that by limiting collective bargaining, the Legislature bolstered workers' ability to associate and negotiate with whom they choose, while reining in runaway costs.

Finally, we note that a few commentators believe a $3.7 billion structural deficit does not mean our state is broke. They know Wisconsin can borrow, raise taxes and user fees, engage in accounting gimmickry (e.g. raiding "segregated" funds to close budget gaps), or some combination thereof. That's what we have been doing for decades - until now.

Change is never easy, but reform has come from duly-elected officials. We applaud our governor and the Republicans for their leadership in standing for fiscal restraint, and we remind taxpayers that this all boils down to numbers. Too much deficit requires sustainable limits on public-employee benefits - just like in real life, where businesses and taxpayers dwell.

Tim Peterson is a local businessman and former Libertarian Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. Robert Simandl is a Wisconsin attorney practicing employee benefit, labor and employment law. John Maddente is a Republican, blogger and local businessman.
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