I see that Krugman has embraced Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" to explain the Wisconsin kerfluffle. Cowen linked to his excellent review of the book here, but we've covered her too. See here for Oatley's takedown, or here for other entries. Emmanuel also had a nice rebuttal here.
The blogosphere has been filled with debate about the Wisconsin unions, and I don't have time for detailed comment, but here's what I think in a nutshell: I have nothing at all against collective bargaining as a matter of principle. In fact I'm very much in favor of it. The right to free association is (or should be) more or less absolute, and if organized labor can capture more of the surplus from economic production then bully for them. That, of course, is not the case here. The unions have agreed to wage and benefit reductions already, and the current battle is over the right to collectively bargain at all. But the right to collectively bargain is only valuable if bargaining collectively gets concessions for labor. Since that isn't happening, this strikes me (mostly) as symbol over substance. The principle is worth defending, fine, but it's important to choose one's battles wisely. The most likely short-run result of this seems to be the firing of 1,500 public sector workers. It's hard to see how that's a win for the union or anyone else. Too many victories like that and the unions can't survive. A lack of pragmatism seems to be unions' Achilles Heel.
I do find it interesting that this is exclusively about public sector unions. Does it change the usual labor/capital narrative when "capital" is replaced by "citizens of Wisconsin"? I suppose the response is "not all the citizens", but it really is if we're talking about closed schools, fewer social services, etc. Or about democracy. Yes, the rich could pay more in taxes to balance the budget, but the duly elected government of Wisconsin has decided to go a different direction, as they promised they would during the last campaign. (Well, the ones that have remained in the state have made that decision, at least.) Don't like it? There's another election in a couple of years. That's how these things work.
FDR, for one, was in favor of public union busting, believing that they worked against the interests of the citizenry:
Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees.
Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.
I wouldn't say that (it violates what I wrote above), so I guess I'm to the left of FDR on this one.
I know nothing about judicial precedent here. Could unions accept the law to keep their jobs, but then sue and have it overturned later? If so, that seems like the savvy move.