The state’s Department of Public Instruction Web site directs teachers to an outline and sample presentation drawn up by the Wisconsin Labor History Society. It’s a presentation that lauds the accomplishments of the labor movement, but comes up short on explaining the decline of unionism, blaming President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 and right-to-work laws in many states.
In fact, organized labor reached its peak strength in 1945, when 35.5 percent of all non-farm workers were unionized. Teachers who want to offer an accurate lesson on the labor movement should explain to their students that unions succeed in raising wages only in industries that don’t have to compete to offer consumers the best price. And they should explain that the decline in unionism since the 1950s coincides with the American economy becoming more competitive. Right-to-work laws are just a part of that story. Brink Lindsey’s “Paul Krugman’s Nostalgianomics: Economic Policies, Social Norms, and Income Inequality” (The Cato Institute, 2009) provides a good overview of this neglected history.
And if teachers really want to give their students a complete picture, they should explain to them that public-sector unions are not the same as private-sector unions. Unlike private-sector employers, government faces little incentive to bargain effectively with public-sector unions, which has left taxpayers exposed to generous pension liabilities for decades to come. Good sources on this topic include James Sherk’s “Time to Restore Voter Control: End the Government-Union Monopoly,” (The Heritage Foundation, February 25, 2011), and Steven Malanga’s Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer, (Ivan R. Dee, 2010).