Mummy, what are public sector unions for?


As with a child wondering why the world is so odd, I find myself unable to work out what public sector unions are for.

No, I understand what unions in general are for: they are the banding together of the workers to make sure that the employers do not oppress them. Such freedom of association is just as important in a free society as freedom of speech (although whether unions should enjoy legal immunity from certain consequences of their actions is another matter entirely).

But government is the wise and benevolent looking out for all of us isn't it? At least, among those who purport to support public sector unions it does seem to be. That's why they tell us that ever more of our lives must be determined by government. Yet more regulation , nudging, prodding, of us to do the right thing. As determined by the politicians, those wise, benevolent and disinterested beings who determine what the regulation, nudging and prodding will be.

But if government, politicians, are indeed those wise and benevolent beings, then why should those who are employed by them need protecting from them? And if those who work for government need protection, shouldn't those of us subject to government also be protected? Be allowed, for example, to refuse to perform under the contract we've signed (that "social contract" thing?) as union members are able to without fear of retaliation? To withdraw our labour from the government's remit in protest at their worsening of our conditions? For us general citizenry that would be a tax strike of course, one that should have the same protections as unions members withdrawing their labour.

I can see one or other part being an honestly held view: government are people we need protection from thus public sector unions are necessary. But a necessary corollarly to that is that government is dangerous, we all need protection, and we certainly shouldn't be campaigning for it to have ever more power over our lives.

Or that government is lovely and cuddly and we should all welcome its correction of our mistaken ways: in which case there is no need for public sector unions.

Even to argue that government changes party at times and thus sometimes we need the protections of unions doesn't help: for government changes party at times and clearly, at the same time as we need the union protections we all need the protections. Even, as I think is probably true, when the unions don't need their protections the rest of us do and vice versa.

So the existence of and support for public sector unions seems to be an argument in favour of a minarchist state. For if those who work for government need protection from it then we don't want government to do very much so that we all need protection from it similarly.

There is of course a way out of this for those who support both expansive government and public setor unions. That yes, government is lovely and cuddly but that the unions are not there to protect union members. Rather, they are there to extort ever more from government for those members. Which may even actually be true but it's not an argument that I'd want to have to try and defend in public.