Do We Still Need Unions? Yes
Why they’re worth fighting for.
February 27, 2011
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort two weeks ago to end collective bargaining for public employees in his state was the worst thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory—until it unexpectedly became the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: in seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: will it matter?
At this point, it’s a safe bet that the proposal Walker is pushing in Wisconsin won’t spread far. Ambitious Republican governors in Indiana and Florida have backed away as unions have made it clear that trying to yank away collective-bargaining rights is a lot of pain for modest gain. But therein lies the problem: a “win” for unions here is no win at all, but, at best, the avoidance of a loss. It doesn’t end their seemingly decades-long slide into irrelevance—fewer than 7 percent of private workers are unionized, down from about 25 percent in the 1970s. It doesn’t earn them new members, or make it easier to organize Walmart, or create a new model for labor relations that’s better suited to the modern economy. But it does give them a fleeting instant in which America is willing to ask questions that have been ignored for years: Do we need unions? And, if so, how can we get them back? What we’re about to find out is whether the unions have answers. In recent years they haven’t. “They seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future,” says Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union.
But unions still have a crucial role to play in America. First, they give workers a voice within—and, when necessary, leverage against—their employer. That means higher wages, but it also means that workers can go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, they’ll be protected from possible reprisals. Second, unions are a powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarter’s profit reports—what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” in an economy dominated by large corporations. They participate in shareholder meetings, where they’re focused on things like job quality and resisting outsourcing. They push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers or, increasingly, for the environment. In an economy with a tendency toward bigness—where big producers are negotiating with big retailers and big distributors—workers need a big advocate of their own. Finally, unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests. One of the few lobbies pushing for the other side is organized labor—and it plays a strikingly broad role. The Civil Rights Act, the weekend, and the Affordable Care Act are all examples of organized labor fighting for laws that benefited not just the unionized. That’s money and political capital it could’ve spent on reforming the nation’s labor laws.
Of course, organized labor is not always at its best. It can be myopic and hidebound. It can fight for rigid work rules that make workplaces less efficient and workers less happy. It can argue for pension and health-care benefits that, in the long run, are simply not sustainable.
But to paraphrase Tolstoy’s insight about families, all institutions are broken in their own unique ways. Corporations and governments have their flaws, too. Like labor, they’re necessary participants in a balanced economy. A world without organized labor is a world where workers have less voice and corporations are even more dominant and unchecked across both the economy and the political system. That isn’t healthy—not for workers and, in the long run, not even for corporations. But to change it, labor has to do more than cheat death. It has to find a new lease on life nationally.
Do We Still Need Unions? No.
Let’s end a privileged class.
February 27, 2011
The manufactured Madison, Wis., mob is not the movement the White House was hoping for. Both may find themselves at the wrong end of the populist pitchfork. While I generally defend collective bargaining and private-sector unions (lots of airline pilots in my family), it is the abuse by public unions and their bosses that pushes centrists like me to the GOP. It is the right and duty of citizens to petition their government. The Tea Party and Republicans seek to limit government growth to protect their pocketbooks. Public-union bosses want to increase the cost of government to protect their racket.
1. Public unions are big money.
Public unions are big money. Paul Krugman is correct: we do need “some counterweight to the political power of big money.” But in the Alice in Wonderland world where what’s up is down and what’s down is up, Krugman believes public unions do not represent big money. Of the top 20 biggest givers in federal-level politics over the past 20 years, 10 are unions; just four are corporations. The three biggest public unions gave $171.5 million for the 2010 elections alone, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s big money.
2. Public unions redistribute wealth.
Public employees contribute real value for the benefit of all citizens. Public-union bosses collect real money from all taxpayers for the benefit of a few. Unlike private-sector jobs, which are more than fully funded through revenues created in a voluntary exchange of money for goods or serv-ices, public-sector jobs are funded by taxpayer dollars, forcibly collected by the government (union dues are often deducted from public employees’ paychecks). In 28 states, state and local employees must pay full union dues or be fired. A sizable portion of those dues is then donated by the public unions almost exclusively to Democratic candidates. Michael Barone sums it up: “public-employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.”
3. Public unions silence the voters’ voice.
Big money from public unions, collected through mandatory dues, and funded entirely by the taxpayer, is then redistributed as campaign cash to help elect the politicians who are then supposed to represent taxpayers in negotiations with those same unions. In effect, the unions sit on both sides of the table and collectively bargain to raise taxes while the voters’ voice is silenced. But the noisy mob in Madison is amplified beyond its numbers. Wisconsin faces a $137 million deficit this year, and a $3.6 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget. The proposals offered by Gov. Scott Walker would avert 5,500 layoffs of public employees and save $300 million. The public unions, representing just 300,000 government employees in the Badger State, are trying to trump the will of the voters. Though voters don’t get to sit at the bargaining table, they do speak collectively at the ballot box.
4. Public unions are unnecessary.
The primary purpose of private-sector unions today is to get workers a larger share of the profits they helped create. But with a power greater than their numbers, these unions have destroyed the manufacturing sector, forcing jobs overseas by driving labor costs above the price consumers here will pay. The government is a monopoly and it earns no profits to be shared. Public employees are already protected by statutes that preclude arbitrary hiring and firing decisions.
The primary purpose of public unions today, as ugly as it sounds, is to work against the financial interests of taxpayers: the more public employees are paid in wages and uncapped benefits, the less taxpayers keep of the money they earn. It’s time to call an end to the privileged class. And the White House makes a mistake if it thinks it can grow a manufactured and uncivil unrest into a popular movement. Voters will not follow those who flee.
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