As a rosy-cheeked college frosh, I studied labor history with Professor Roger Keeren. Keeren, bearded and bespectacled, looked every bit the liberal academic, but it wasn’t until his enthusiasm for the International Workers of the World came across that one realized where his true sympathies lay. My girlfriend at the time came out of class and announced, “I want to be a Wobbly.” He was that persuasive.
I wasn’t convinced. It seemed to me that the concept was flawed over the long haul, as Unions were required to seek perpetually greater benefits for their members or they had no reason to exist. While they served the needs of workers well in the early days, things had changed over the decades and the imbalance of power wasn’t nearly as imbalanced as it was when Eugene V. Debs ran for president. Yet Unions showed no interest in shutting their doors, a job well done.
Professor Kieren like me, I suspect, as he didn’t flunk me for expressing my views. Needless to say, my position was not embraced.
The problem was both worse, and different, with public sector unions. While the economic incentives that made private sector unionism theoretically viable, the offsetting clout of strikes and lockouts, meant that both sides had skin in the game, no similar balance could be achieved in the public sphere.
Government exists to serve public needs. Forget about all the issue surrounding how well it does so, as that doesn’t change the theory. It can’t tell its unionized employees that if they don’t like their salary and benefits they can go find another government to work for, and then shut the doors. Yet while public employee strikes are unlawful, they are invariably forgiven as part of the settlement the resolves labor disputes.
Then there’s the political element, which gives public officials an incentive to get along with public employee unions while pretending to talk tough. They know that the public really can’t live without schools and subways, even though the public hates paying taxes. The beauty is that the cost of increased public employees salaries and benefits isn’t felt until the next guy is in office, and then he can wash his hands of responsibility blaming his predecessor.
But Governor Scott Walker has drawn a line in the sand, saying that the gravy train has come to an end. It would be a lot more convincing if he hadn’t exempted friendly unions and targeted unfriendlies, but political purity is hard to find. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman asserts that Walker’s War isn’t motivated by fiscal conservatism, but a power struggle between the proletariat and the oligarchy.
Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there’s not much room for further pay squeezes.
So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.
Krugman then channels George Orwell, a requirement in such arguments.
In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.
Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.
Now it’s awfully arrogant of me to do what I’m about to do, given that Krugman won the Nobel Prize and I won, well, nothing of consequence, but I’m constrained to do so anyway. Here goes: Krugman’s wrong.
Regardless of whether public employees have a statutory right to engage in collective bargaining, they still have the right of association. They can form interest groups, political action committees, to promote their wants. Even though Walker seeks to end their statutory right to compel the state to bargain collectively with them, that doesn’t preclude the ability to lock arms, walk as one and express their ideas.
The problem is that they won’t. The problem is that workers pay union dues because they are forced to do so, and expect a quid pro quo in return. Eliminate ever-higher salaries and benefits from the mix, and the union hall will have a deafening echo. It all about the money, just as every teacher negotiation employs rhetoric about teaching children until it settles for a 3% salary increase.
The loss of the union voice, Krugman contends, spells the death of democracy and the surrender to oligarchy.
You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.
That’s some false and dangerous reasoning. Neither the oligarchy, nor the unions, speak for “the interest of middle- and working-class Americans.” Indeed, they are both out to get what they can from us for their own benefit. When was the last time a Union negotiated over a pension for all Americans who are pensionless? When was the last time a Union bargained away their dental plan so working-class Americans outside the union sphere could get a raise?
That’s right, the unions talk the good talk, but they walk for the benefit of their own. And if you aren’t one of them, then they will burn your interests in a flash without the slightest remorse. That’s how unions continue to exist.
When it comes to undue influence over government, conflicting with our populist notion of one man, one vote, there is nothing less democratic than public sector unionism. They get to force the government to sit down and bargain with them, enter into a contract and hold them to it, law (that applies to everyone else) be damned. You try it. Call the governor and demand that he sit down and bargain with you.
The argument is that public employees have a greater stake, since their salary and benefits are on the line, that entitles them to a louder voice then other citizens and taxpayers. There’s merit to this argument, that some pigs are more equal than others (see, I can channel Orwell too).
But that doesn’t necessarily translate into giving them the right to compel the government to bargain in good faith with their collective representative. Without this right, public sector employees can still have their voice, astounding monetary and voting influence by joining together for their mutual benefit and funding the election campaigns of their heroes and promoting their cause. If, that is, they found common ground aside from how big their next paycheck would be.
And what of the Oligarchs, left to control our thoughts by tossing money at politicians without any countervailing interest group to throw money at the other team? They may still be enjoying their Citizens United rights to buy government, but there are still more of us than them. The solution is to rid ourselves of undue influence rather than have two masters rending the fabric of politics apart to our detriment. The solution is for the public to take responsibility for our democracy rather than expect unions to serve our interest by counterbalancing the oligarchy.
Neither the unions nor the oligarchy loves us. We need to stand up for ourselves, to whatever end that might be, and stop waiting for Superman.
Update: In light of the comments below, much of which is either illogical, purely subjective or based of false allegations of fact, this video via Nick Gillespie and Radley Balko from Reason seems enlightening.