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March 1, 2011

public sector unions and the public interest

I can imagine a just society without public sector unions. Democratically elected officials, accountable to the whole public, would decide how much money to invest in the civil service and how to run it. Public employees, like everyone else, could vote to affect those decisions. Individuals could decide whether to work for a given municipality or state. Governments would not bargain with unions as collectivities, and unions would not make campaign contributions.

I can also imagine a just society in which business corporations were permitted to operate in the marketplace but were forbidden to lobby or make political contributions of any type. Governments would not negotiate or even meet with corporations as such. Individuals who owned stakes in corporations could exercise their individual civil rights, but corporations would be treated as potentially corrupting special interests, and their charters of incorporation would forbid them from acting politically.

I can also imagine a society in which politicians and judges could not accept money from any private organizations or individuals. In this society, reasons and votes would be the only political currency. While we are dreaming, we might even imagine that turnout was high in this society and that all groups were represented equally in elections.

Our actual political system is driven by organized interest groups. In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court officially endorsed, as a matter of constitutional interpretation, the principle that corporations and other interest groups are free to use unlimited money in politics. No one even complains when corporations negotiate with political leaders on matters like where to locate and invest.

If we had a discussion about the influence of interest groups, it would tap into a deep vein of public dissatisfaction. In the 2008 American National Election Study, 70 percent of respondents said the government was “run by a few big interests”; 30 percent said it was “run for the benefit of all.” But the influence of public sector unions would hardly top the list of concerns in any reasonable discussion of "big interests." Unions' power (whether measured in inputs such as money, or in outputs such as favorable policies) would look puny compared to the power of for-profit corporations.

If we had a discussion about what causes some state programs to perform badly (or what swells state budget deficits), reasonable people could lob some criticisms in the direction of public employee unions. The California prison guards union, for example, fought hard for "three strikes" laws and other draconian sentencing policies so that the state of California would build almost one new prison per year for decades--with devastating effects on the state budget and communities.

But any damage that unions do would have to be put in context. Just before Gov. Scott Walker proposed to cut state employees' salaries and benefits, he signed a $117.2 million tax break for corporations. Repealing tax cuts or removing business tax breaks would be alternative options for solving the problem (budget deficits) that Gov. Walker attributes to unions.

Finally, in this discussion, we would have to consider the public benefits of unions, which are not just negotiating partners but also professional associations, builders of social capital, educative institutions, and potential partners in solving public problems.

We are not having a broad discussion in which all organized interests are scrutinized and all remedies to state deficits and other public problems are on the table. Instead, we see efforts to destroy certain public sector unions while exempting the unions that vote Republican. That is a sure sign that we are talking about raw power and resistance.

In a system of virtually unlimited interest-group power, we need as much organization as possible to counteract the political influence of for-profit corporations. State sector unions are not the ideal source of countervailing power. They represent teachers but not students, prison guards but not prisoners, and state employees but not private sector workers or consumers. Still, they offer some kind of check--and that is why the newly elected Midwestern Republican governors want to destroy them.

One of the most interesting questions is how unions will react if the state of Wisconsin and its municipalities stop negotiating with them (while maintaining the existing statutory ban on strikes in the public sector). Since the New Deal, labor law has envisioned officially recognized--some would say co-opted and bureaucratized--unions. Since the 1950s, public sector unions in many states have been granted the legal right to negotiate with state agencies but have also been denied what some would call an intrinsic moral right to organize and strike. One possibility is that we will now enter an era in which organized groups of state workers simply withhold their labor and dare the state to replace them all--or negotiate. Some local observers "now fear [that] Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for most public employees will lead to gut-wrenching strikes." Indeed, strikes would be gut-wrenching, because teachers and other public employees could lose. But they could also win.

March 1, 2011 1:01 PM | category: none



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