This morning I read an interesting article in sfgate about why public employee collective bargaining should be considered different than private employee collective bargaining.
The argument is essentially that, in the private sector, unions negotiate with people they have no influence on, whereas in the public sector they can wield some influence over the politicians, with whom they negotiate. There is a tangential claim that public employees are already afforded job protections as the result of existing and earlier laws. Michael Bloomberg also hinted at this in his recent statement that tenure is no longer needed in public schools, though I have a real problem with his claim that tenure is no longer needed because it originated out of a desire to protect political speech; implying for me that education is not political, which is of course absurd. Perhaps he was being lazy connecting his dots and he did later point to the existence of civil service protections as the ostensibly pre-existing protections.
The argument that existing laws might be a duplication of some aspects of union protection is an interesting one. I've often felt if states were able to guarantee the same kinds of protections that unions do, that public employees would have much less problem with who it was that was providing it. I also, however, believe that logic is flawed because the 'provider' of that protection in the public case would be the same entity from whom the protection is sought (conflict of interest?). In other words, the fact that private ownership is 'independent' cuts both ways. My guess has always been this was the reason unions were pushed in the public sector as well, even if it was done in spite of pre-existing protections.
Regardless, I do think there is some difference between teachers and the rest of the public sector employees in that teacher's unions negotiate with school boards, which are local and elected members of the school community. While I guess it is possible for a local union to lobby or even contribute to a local school board candidate's campaign, that seems something quite different than being able to donate large amounts of money to state-level politicians, who only set policy at the abstract level (and don't negotiate with unions on behalf of each district).
That said, a while back I read an article that implied that contract negotiations between school districts and unions are exempted from the public disclosure laws. This is supposedly why we generally are not able to get specifics about any ongoing negotiations. The article implied that unions had worked for this exemption in the mid 90's. I asked at least one of my local board members about this and they did not know that that information was exempt. My belief is that any influence over politicians at the local level would be significantly reduced if the community were able to follow the negotiations and provide feedback to them during the process. I could imagine some arguments for why that might not be a good idea for anyone, but none seem too compelling.
Politicali, I am particularly interested in your opinion on this since you have put a lot of thought into the question of labor and unions.