A recent front-page story in the New York Times reported that the majority of Americans back public sector unions. Quite a few pundits challenged the accuracy of the poll on which the story was based. Still, it’s quite clear that unions have an honored place in the moral universe of Americans.

What does that mean in the light of the struggle over collective bargaining now going on in Wisconsin? Do the unions-despite the despicable behavior of individuals associated with them-still have a moral high ground?

One of the best thinkers on economics and morality I know of is the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, which seeks to relate free-market principles to Judeo-Christian teachings. (I have a friend who is so sold on Acton that before buying a mutual fund, she sent them the prospectus and asked if there was anything in it that would prevent its being a moral purchase; believe it or not, somebody at Acton took the time to read the material and reply!)

Sirico recently had a piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that looks at what’s going on in Wisconsin in the light of pro-union social teachings.  Sirico stresses that there has long been a bias towards unions (and, indeed, a romance about them) in the social teachings of the Western world. Sirico notes that unions historically are bound up in the right to free association. So must a moral person be on the side of the unions in Wisconsin?

Sirico writes:

[T]he driving force behind the budgetary move has nothing to do with human rights, unless one considers the rights of Wisconsin taxpayers.   

The alarming reality of state and federal overspending and debt is something that cannot be denied. Prudent and necessary cuts must be made in the Wisconsin budget, and state employees must be part of that plan. How do public-sector unions fit into this? It is nearly impossible for anyone to work for the public sector without being a member, and unions collect dues, which operate like taxes for most everyone else.

This was not always the case. Public-sector unions emerged after World War II in the wake of the crack-up of many big-city political machines, and they were a convenient way for government employees to extract higher salaries and benefits at public expense.

What does this have to do with the freedom of association? Industrial unions have been on the decline for decades precisely because of the freedom of association. Organizing activity for years has shifted to the public sector, where union political contributions carry a lot of weight. Unions that remain strong are that way because they push against the freedom of association, denying alternatives to workers and taxpayers.

Ordinary people need to wake up to a reality-public unions aren’t organizing against some millionaire out there who won’t pay decent wages. They are organizing against ordinary folks, taxpayers who often have less lavish pay and benefits packages than their employers (i.e., members of the public). There is nothing idealistic or romantic about bilking taxpayers.