In an Age of Collective Bargaining, Can State Governments Govern?



By 02/28/2011

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As the extra-legal actions taken by the Democratic senators in Wisconsin persist into their second week, and as Indiana Democrats are following suit, the risk to orderly government in these states continues to intensify.

Quorum calls are essential to a well-ordered democracy.  Unless a quorum is required for the passage of legislation, leaders can pass legislation with only an unrepresentative group in attendance.  “The purpose of a quorum is to prevent an unrepresentative group from taking action in the name of the organization,” says  “Robert’s Rules of Order”  (as translated into plain English in the 19970 by Doris Zimmerman, a professionally registered parliamentarian).

In most state houses, a majority of the members constitute a quorum, so the quorum rule cannot be abused by the minority party. But in five states—Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, Oregon, and Tennessee—supermajorities are required.  In four of these five states, walkouts have occurred in the past, but in no prior case did it involve one of the two major political parties working hand-in-glove with teachers and other government workers falsely reporting that they were sick and unable to report to work.

Writing on the blog “The Thicket at State Legislatures,” Karl Kurtz has reported all prior abuses of the quorum call detectable by search engine.  In Texas and Oregon, Democrats walked out over a standard partisan issue—legislative redistricting.  In Indiana, the Democrats temporarily killed legislation by walking out just before the deadline that brought the legislative session to an end.  A Republican majority in Nevada walked out briefly to protest a speech made by a Democratic representative.  A Democratic majority in Alabama walked out to kill a bizarre power grab by a Republican Lieutenant Governor.  In California, Republicans in an evenly divided assembly tried to prevent Democrat Willie Brown from becoming Speaker by walking out, thereby precluding a majority quorum. In all of these undertakings, the minority got very little for their extra-legal efforts.

Then, there is also the incident in Illinois back in 1839 when young Abraham Lincoln, when first elected to public office, joined in a momentary legislative boycott in Illinois, which was quickly put to rest.

Past boycotts of quorum calls have set unfortunate precedents.  But none of them won the apparent support of the President of the United States.  And none took place in combination with extra-legal actions by government workers.

Does anyone doubt that the quorum trick, should it prove effective in Wisconsin and Indiana, will be tried again? Indiana and Wisconsin’s governors need to hold tough, not just because of the merits of this particular case but, more importantly, to forestall such violations of state law and democratic practice in the future.

The events in Wisconsin and Indiana reveal the grave risk to democracy that collective bargaining in the public sector now poses.  Since winning collective bargaining rights in the 1960s and 1970s, public sector unions have formed a tight alliance with one of the country’s major political parties.  They now have the capacity to create public disorder through strikes, demonstrations, and illegal actions, and their heavy contributions to political campaigns gives them the capacity to persuade members of a major political party to take actions of dubious legality on their behalf.

We can now appreciate, more than ever, the wisdom of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he drew a sharp distinction between collective bargaining in the private and public sectors.  “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. . . . The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials . . . to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.  The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.” (As quoted in my Saving Schools, p. 106.)

Fortunately, Roosevelt’s rule still has some force at the federal level.  Federal workers cannot bargain over wages and benefits, as only elected representatives can spend the federal dollar.  For that reason, President Obama was able to impose a wage freeze on all federal workers.

Should that rule not apply to the states as well?

-Paul E. Peterson




Comment on this article
  • christy says:

    Wisconsin not only did a wage freeze with its state employees….but an essential wage CUT with mandatory furlough days. And that was with collective bargaining. Let’s not pretend that the state employees have been asking for excessive raises and increased benefits every year. Lets not forget that the state employees conceded to the pay cuts (aka – pay higher % of their compenstation to their healthcare and pensions). If this is about fiscal issues – then why wouldn’t that be good enough? Why do their rights have to be taken away?

  • In Milwaukee, pensions are 74 percent of compensation.
    You don’t have to ask for excessive benefits every year if you already have them.
    No one else has ridiculously expensive benefits such as these.
    Young teachers would rather have higher salaries, because the benefits mostly go to the old timers.

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