One of the most remarkable things about the standoff in Wisconsin is that it has reignited a debate rarely heard for the last half-century: Are public-employee unions in the public interest?
Interestingly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic icon and strong champion of the labor movement, emphatically thought not.
A shrewd tactician who loved his country, FDR recognized that public-employee unions are a different breed.
"All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," he declared.
In the private sector, management has a strong incentive to negotiate pragmatically — the need to maintain a profit to stay in business. Customers have a choice of buying cheaper products and services elsewhere.
In the public sector, such restraints disappear. The employees — through their campaign contributions and organizing activities — often get to determine who sits on the other side of the negotiating table from them.
When politicians who owe their power to public employees conduct so-called negotiations with them, taxpayers are left utterly defenseless. Since government is a monopoly, citizens are not permitted to shop around for another one that negotiates better contracts and provides cheaper services. No, citizens must simply pay, under the threat of arrest and imprisonment.
Thus, politicians can give away the store, bank on the unions' support in the next election, and hand the bill over to someone else: You.
We've seen the results of such one-sided "negotiations" — early retirements, pensions with annual cost-of-living boosts, free health care for life. And while the politicians retain their power, and public-employee-union bosses get fat, private-sector workers find their quality of life steadily eroded by higher taxes that do little to provide basic services or help the neediest.
It's a perfect circle: Public-employee unions get increasing amounts of money from the taxpayers, and use it to defeat the taxpayers' interests.