A Tale of Two Union Disputes:

 There are two high-profile labor disputes in the news these days. One involves Wisconsin’s public-school teachers; the other, the National Football League’s players. I mentioned this to a friend, who responded that the NFL dispute was more troublesome. The very idea of people making such high salaries possibly striking for more irked her. While I understand that sentiment, I believe that the dispute in Wisconsin is far more problematical. Here’s why:

I freely concede that teachers are far more valuable to society than pro-football players. Education is necessary; major league sports teams are not. Why, then, do jocks get paid so much more than teachers?

This question is a latter-day version of what was known a couple of centuries ago as “the paradox of value”—a paradox that economists didn’t resolve until the 1870s. The paradox was that an ounce of gold sold for a much higher price than a loaf of bread, even though the former was an optional ornamentation and the latter sustained life itself. Clearly, bread is more valuable. It is also, however, far more common than gold. The relative scarcity of gold accounts for its higher price. Today, the relative scarcity of men able to compete at the NFL level is why they get paid so much more than teachers, the latter of whom are far more abundant.

Many say that pro athletes don’t deserve to make so much money. I disagree. That is not to say that I regard athletes as more important than teachers. I don’t. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the athlete-as-idol phenomenon in our culture. (The decline and fall of Rome was accompanied by a pagan obsession with musculature and physical contests.) It’s not that I don’t think tickets to NFL games are already too high. For my taste, they are, but that is irrelevant, because enough of my fellow citizens freely choose to pay those stiff prices and pay for those gaudy NFL salaries. Since nobody forces anybody to pay those ticket prices, who can object?

Here are the main reasons why I have more sympathy for the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) than the Wisconsin teachers union (WEAC) in their respective labor disputes:

The NFL is highly competitive. Those who don’t perform at a very high level are quickly replaced. Superior performance is rewarded and underachievers are pink-slipped. The NFL is a meritocracy, and that commands respect. The teachers union, by contrast, is anticompetitive. The NEA and its affiliates have squandered much public goodwill by routinely protecting inferior teachers and resisting all efforts to reward exceptional performance.

The NFLPA is negotiating directly with those who pay their salaries—the team owners. The WEAC, by contrast, uses every political tactic it can think of to induce the Wisconsin governor and legislature to transfer money that isn’t even their own (it’s citizens’ money) into their bank accounts. NFL owners are wealthier than the players they pay. By contrast, many of the citizens who are taxed year after year to pay teachers’ salaries and benefits have lower salaries and fewer benefits than those to whom their taxes go.

I should interject here that there is an unresolvable dilemma inherent in the taxpayer-financed, public-school model. Either governments enable public school teachers to hold taxpayers over a barrel and essentially extort money from them by work stoppages, or teachers surrender their right to withhold their labor if the terms of employment aren’t satisfactory to them. Neither option seems just. The only way out of that dilemma is to privatize education, but that idea is currently regarded as too radical.

Finally, the NFL negotiations have not become a divisive partisan phenomenon in an age when too many issues have. We won’t have to worry about the NFL labor dispute inducing President Obama to abuse our constitutional federal order or try to subvert a state’s duly elected government.

Indeed, don’t expect to see any of your favorite pro-football players carrying posters of Hitler or trying to shut down lawful government. Even if you don’t like what the NFL players are asking for, compared to the teachers in Wisconsin, they are pursuing their goals in a dignified, respectful way. Thanks, guys, for upholding a higher standard in collective bargaining. And thank you to all you Wisconsin teachers who are dedicated to your students and don’t support your union’s mandatory shakedowns.

(© 2011 Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson)

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.