Kf Plays Wisconsin Catch-up, #1: Here’s what I think about public employee unionism. It was written in 1983, long before the Koch money began rolling in, so you know it’s sincere. At the time, I was pushing worker ownership as the best way to dissolve the adversarial relationship between workers and management (something I still think is a good idea):
Worker ownership is clearly inapplicable to government workers, since we don’t want to sell them the government. But, for some of the same reasons, government unionism is peculiarly unappealing in the first place. There are no “profits” in the government for the collective-bargaining system to redistribute, and there is consequently no “bottom line” limit on the amount of wage increases that can be extracted. At the same time, many government workers control vital services, making the threat of a strike tantamount to blackmail. And the danger of work rules reinforcing general tendencies toward bureaucracy is at its peak in government enterprises. The growth of government unions should be directly discouraged.
That year–1983–saw a wave of neolib rethinking of conventional union power. Here’s Gregg Easterbrook’s contribution, which unlike mine is not behind a horrific paywall. When neoliberal Gary Hart trounced union candidate Walter Mondale in the 1984 California primary–after ragging on Mondale for his reluctance to admit that yes, maybe, some poorly performing teachers should be fired–I foolishly thought the debate was over and Big Labor would henceforth be on the run within the Democratic party. I was so wrong. Today, labor’s grip on Democrats in this state, at least, is stronger than ever. And the idea that public employees shouldn’t be able to extract “more” in the same way private unionized employees extract “more” is still considered a radical idea within the MSM, and perhaps the electorate as a whole.
Why did the neolibs fail? Because, while organized labor quieted down for a while, its institutional basis was not destroyed. Candidates like Hart and Bill Clinton come and go, but labor’s legal monopoly on representation and ability to extract dues remains. As the non-labor parts of the Democratic party went into long-term decline–the actual state party machine is a shadow of its former self–labor’s machinery was all that was left.
Institutions matter, and institutional power matters. Reformers are supposed to understand that. (Would you reform Wall Street by accepting some one-time concessions from Goldman Sachs without actually curbing their institutional power?) That’s why it was so dispiriting to hear David Brooks’ wimpy performance on NPR the other day. Brooks lamented that Gov. Walker had made it an “all or nothing fight … why did it have to become all or nothing?” After all, Walker could have met the unions halfway and cut a” deal” that reduced the deficit. (At least I think it was Brooks saying this. I listened to Brooks then Dionne, then Dionne then Brooks, and soon it was almost impossible to say which was which.)
It’s all about the deficit to Brooks. But the damage done by public sector unionism isn’t mainly the producing of deficits. It’s the crippling of government, so that bad teachers can’t be fired and productivity stagnates and virtually everything the government does it does crappier than private industry does it. That’s a big, ongoing problem for Democrats, which is why maybe it doesn’t trouble Brooks. But it should trouble even non-neo liberals. Democrats are the party that needs the government to be good at something other than mailing out checks.
Is Gov. Walker using the deficit as an excuse for making long-term institutional changes? You bet. It’s “all or nothing” because when you threaten the core institutional basis of AFSCME and the SEIU they will make it all or nothing. They have no choice.
It would be a disaster for union reform if Walker succumbs to Brooksian flaccidity now–whether his position is popular or not. The message, as gleefully interpreted by the MSM, would be that Republicans go too far when they threaten the treasured institution of government unionism (never mind that Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana ended state employee union collective bargaining six years ago, by executive order, and he still stands). That would be worse than if Walker had never made the attempt. He has the votes and can pass the bill whatever the polls say–just as Obama had the votes on his health care bill despite poll-measured popular disquiet.
Obama pushed his law through, took the heat, and may emerge victorious. Walker should do the same.