Most of the focus on public employee unions emphasizes the fact that states are going bankrupt and that states can’t continue to give these unions the almost obscene perks they have gotten in the past. But that misses the more fundamental point.

The crucial difference between public and private employee unions is this: A private employee union bargains with its employer to determine its share of the profits that it helps to create. Public employee unions bargain against the taxpayer — and for a potentially boundless sum of money that is not limited by profit. Press reports generally characterize public employee unions as bargaining against the government, but that implies that the government is the source of the money that the public employee unions are after. The actual source, of course, is the citizenry.

As the Wisconsin battle continues, those looking for a useful and readable primer on the differences between public and private employee unions — and on the history of public-employee unions — might want to read Daniel DiSalvo’s piece in the fall 2010 edition of National Affairs.

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