Much of the nation’s attention is directed toward the confrontation in Wisconsin. Pundits are all over the thing, but most of them seem to miss the fundamental economic and power dynamics issues. But it’s starting to become clear that the central issue is the ability of teachers in Wisconsin to have collective bargaining.
The alternative to collective bargaining is individual bargaining. Most Americans work in an individual bargaining environment. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Collective bargaining provides consistency at the expense of not rewarding merit, while individual bargaining rewards merit but with many opportunities for favoritism, nepotism, gender bias, etc. Bargaining is about more than wages, health insurance, and pensions: there are lots of small workplace quality issues, many of which are individualized. (Can I leave early on Thursdays if I work longer on Friday?)
Collective bargaining has appeal when work must be tightly synchronized and everyone must start and stop together – think factories and schools. It has less appeal in other circumstances.
But I believe that a major factor driving the choice between collective and individual bargaining is the preference of the individual. Some people are uncomfortable with individual bargaining and will prefer collective bargaining. Others will prefer individual bargaining. I’m not going to get into amateur psychology here, but it seems obvious that different kinds of careers and job situations will appeal to different kinds of temperaments.
Despite all the rhetoric from left and right, I suspect it makes little difference. What matters most is the kind of bargain struck between employee and employer, not how it is negotiated. If a bargain is not sustainable, everyone loses, which is pretty much what’s happening in Wisconsin.