Home Money George Washington Forum holds debate on public union power

George Washington Forum holds debate on public union power

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As more states in the United States consider right-to-work laws, the George Washington Forum held its first ever debate Monday evening on the topic of how much power public sector unions should have.

The debate was held between David DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Local and State Leadership, and Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. The debate, titled “Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences”, was based off of DiSalvo’s book of the same name.

Around 50 people were present in the Friends of the Library room in Alden Library as the two debaters gave arguments on how much power public unions should have in today’s economy. DiSalvo started by pointing out differences between private and public sector unions, including how public unions represents more employees within its sector than private unions yet have less restrictions against them. He moved into how much power public unions have through hard and soft money campaign donations (mainly to Democrats, he said) and how they have “sophisticated” lobbying efforts and collective bargaining methods.

“I think the big consequence has been that the public employee unions have been good for public employees, but they’ve imposed some costs on the rest of us,” DiSalvo said. “And this has actually served really to make relatively-affluent people just slightly better off and hasn’t done a lot for the people who are in the classic working class of the United States.”

In his remarks, Kahlenberg argued that because of the decline of power in private sector unions, the strength of public unions is America’s only chance to ensure that the labor movement can have a say in their workplaces. He also supported the United Nations argument that both the right to organize in the workplace and the right to collectively bargain are basic human rights.

“Having that public sector remain vibrant and strong is an important thing not only for the members of the unions themselves but the country as a whole,” Kahlenberg said. “Because I think having a strong union movement, whether it’s public or private sector, strengthens America, strengthens the middle class and strengthens our democracy.”

During the Q&A session, some audience members, including Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus Richard Vedder and Athens City Council candidate C.J. Fogarty, asked the two debaters to expand on their views, including whether or not the right for unions to collectively bargain was a basic human right. Specifically, teachers unions and their roles in society were also debated heavily during the session, as Kahlenberg specializes in.

One of the audience members, junior communication studies major Aric Walker, favored DiSalvo in the debate, saying that although both DiSalvo and Kahlenberg had well-thought arguments, some of the things Kahlenberg said “embraced values that were contrary to what America was built on: individualism and the idea that you do what you need to do to get where you need to be.”

“I just really feel that Dan [DiSalvo] did a great job on presenting the side of why public sector unions are not good, and Rick [Kahlenberg] seemed more defensive,” Walker said. “He didn’t seem to have an offensive approach to it; he seemed more on the defense, never trying to justify or explain why unions do what they do, but more deflect the blame organizations and structures that are good for society that do things that are similar to unions.”

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