On and on and on Wisconsin
Harold Meyerson has promoted me from Scrooge-like to Kevorkianesque. Awesome! But let's stick to the issue at hand. That issue, very simply, is whether collective bargaining for employees of state and local government is in the public interest. I say no. It's bad economics: As years of experience have demonstrated, public-sector unions raise the cost of vital government services while reducing efficiency and innovation. And it's bad democracy: Collective bargaining, by its nature, moves public policy decision-making out of the legislature and into a smoke-filled room -- where an interested party, unelected and unaccountable, has undue leverage.
Harold says yes, for two reasons: His first claim is that public sector workers have a fundamental right to collective bargaining -- but such a "right" does not exist under American law. His second, and weightier, argument is that the public sector unions are the linchpin of the Democratic Party and progressive politics more generally. Without their get-out-the-vote drives, especially in minority communities, a whiter, richer electorate will dismantle "civil rights, environmental reform, infrastructure development, financial regulation, consumer protection, and on and on."
The first thing to note is that, unlike the "fundamental right" claim, this is not a principled argument. It hinges on the fact that public-sector unionism leads to support for progressive causes. Presumably, if the unions had a different policy agenda, then we would have to be against collective bargaining. In any case, it is a straw man. Harold warns of the public sector unions' "abrupt absence" from politics. But Walker's bill would not deprive any employees of their fundamental right to free association. They could still band together, pool their dues money, help get out the vote, and lobby the legislature on the issues that concern them -- to include their own pay and benefits as well as the rest of the agenda Harold supports. They just could not count on the state government apparatus to do the organization and dues-collection work for them.
Think I'm setting up a straw man? Well, there's no public-sector collective bargaining in Virginia, and there never has been. But the state has two Democratic Senators, elected the nation's first black governor, went for Barack Obama handily in 2008 -- and pays its public employees pretty decently. Unlike the public-union-dominated county in Maryland where I live, where only union-endorsed, union-financed Democrats have a chance to win public office and voter turnout is on the wane, the state of Virginia is a model of a vigorous, competitive two-party system.
Think Virginia public employee unions have no voice? They have the same voice as everyone else, maybe more. Look at this discussion of "Lobby Day 2011" from the Virginia Educational Assocation's Web site. Meyerson says unions are needed more than ever in a post-Citizens United world; but that decision liberated unions as well as corporations to spend on politics.
Then there's the question of whether unions use their power for the actual, as opposed to rhetorical, benefit of minorities and the poor -- once they're done turning them out to vote for union-backed candidates on Election Day. Many of us who have witnessed the tooth-and-nail teacher union battle against public charter schools would say: Not necessarily. Another example: Union rules that require school districts to fire younger teachers first when layoffs occur -- even if they're better at their jobs than older ones. The resulting staff turnover is especially hard on minority children, because the younger, newer teachers are often sent to struggling inner-city schools. In Meyerson's own home town, Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, a Latino and a former teacher union organizer, had to file a lawsuit, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, to win even modest reforms to this harmful practice. The teachers union is fighting the court order, arguing that it "tramples the rights of teachers."
Meyerson sees public-sector unions as the financial and organizational engine of a big-tent Democratic Party, but I would argue that, for every vote they turn out, they probably drive another one away. The Democrats' dependence on the public-sector unions gives them a conflict of interest on one of middle class's most basic concerns, the tax burden -- a public-union-money-addicted party has a built-in bias toward higher taxes and has to keep crying "tax the rich," even after states and local governments have run out of rich to tax.
To be sure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, has adopted a different course and one can hope that he is a harbinger rather than the exception that proves the rule. But a public-sector-union-dominated Democratic Party will always find it harder to be the party of innovative, cost-effective government. At a time of sweeping change in both the U.S. and across the increasingly competitive world, public-sector unions chain the Democrats to an expensive status quo. Over time, that will drive independents who aren't necessarily right-wingers but who do worry about spending, deficits and sluggish bureaucracy into the arms of the GOP. Come to think of it, isn't that part of the reason that Scott Walker and a Republican-majority legislature got elected in Wisconsin in the first place?
Political analyst Kevin Phillips invented the perfect term for this kind of progressivism: "reactionary liberalism." The public-sector unions, and Meyerson's apologia for them, epitomize it.
| February 23, 2011; 1:33 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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