Shorter E.J. Dionne: The Wagner Act exists. Therefore it must always exist:
[Wisconsin Gov. Scott ]Walker is not being challenged because he pursued conservative policies but because Wisconsin has become the most glaring example of a new and genuinely alarming approach to politics on the right. It seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power. …
But Walker and his allies did more than this in Wisconsin. They also sought to undermine one of the Democratic Party’s main sources of organization. They sharply curtailed collective bargaining by most public employee unions and made it harder for these organizations to maintain themselves over time, notably by requiring an almost endless series of union elections.
The attack on unions was carried out in the name of saving state and local government money. But there is a big difference between, on the one hand, bargaining hard with the unions and demanding more reasonable pension agreements, and, on the other, trying to undercut the labor movement altogether. [E.A.]
It would be one thing for Dionne to argue, as I’m sure he often has, that unions are necessary to prevent exploitation of workers, redress a power imbalance, reduce income inequality, etc.. But that’s not the argument he’s making here, perhaps because it would be a tough sell. Instead, he’s taking a short cut around those annoying policy disputes and arguing that because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attempted a permanent structural change instead of working within existing arrangements, he’s guilty of trying “to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field.”**
In effect, Walker’s an extremist. Work within the Wagner Act to fight labor–OK! Try to alter the Wagner Act–beyond the pale. The Wagner Act (and state-collected union dues) are part of the “rules.” You can’t change the rules. The rules are here to stay.
Marxists would call this “reification”–the attribution of a false permanence to what are in fact only transient, man-made institutions (like the organizations created by the Wagner Act). Back in the ’60s, when Dionne went to college, leftish types fought reification.*** The point was to change the system, after all, not to play games within it–by The Man’s rules! But reification has now become the routine basis for Democratic arguments against Republican reform. You can’t change the entitlement to welfare! After all, said Sen. Moynihan, welfare had been an entitlement since … what, 1935! You can’t get rid of government employee unions! They’ve been the “rule” since 1963!*** That’s just the way it is.
Welfare stopped being an entitlement in 1996. And if Gov. Walker prevails in the Wisconsin recall election next Tuesday (as I hope he does), radically reforming public sector unionism will become an acceptable alternative in more states than Wisconsin.
This will be good for left-wing advocates of big government, including Dionne (as Taranto notes). The inefficiency and expense of unionized government is a major reason why taxpayers don’t want more of it. Governor Walker may achieve a dramatic reform that perversely creates the conditions for undermining his own limited-government vision. The Marxists have a word for that, too.*****
**–Dionne says Walker insidiously used “incumbency” to produce these changes. “Incumbency” in this case means a law was passed by a democratically elected legislature (incumbents all) and signed by a democratically elected incumbent governor. It’s not like Walker said “We can’t wait” and imposed the change through executive order.
***– I am of course much too young to remember the ’60s myself. But this is what I’m told.
****– One way to reify something is to call it a “right.” So of what’s at stake isn’t welfare as prescribed by the Social Security Act, but “welfare rights,” not unionism under a specific law but collective bargaining “rights.”
*****–Dialectics. Welfare reform’s dialectic effect shows the way: By making voters more comfortable with government spending–because dollars were no longer, in theory, going to able-bodied people whether or not they tried to work–it paved the way for both Obama’s election and his health care bill.