Theses on Unions, Wisconsin, and Other Things

by Russell Arben Fox on March 10, 2011 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Region & Place

IWW

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS
So last night, the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate passed the bill which Governor Scott Walker has made the cornerstone of his new administration: stripping collective bargaining rights from most of the public employee unions in the state (the police and firefighter unions were exempt). They did this, despite the absence of the Democrats needed to form a quorum, by stripping from the bill all spending or fiscal matters–in other words, reducing the bill to the plain contest over political power which I and many others said it was weeks ago.

What will come next is anyone’s guess. Thousands are gathering in Madison for perhaps the largest demonstration yet. The polls show that Governor Walker and the local Republicans have taken a beating for attacking the rights of school teachers and other public employees. This fight over unions has mobilized certain voters to levels not seen since 2008; recall election drives against state politicians are underway, and one against Governor Walker himself probably isn’t too far distant. It’s tense, it’s infuriating, it’s exciting, it’s dramatic…one might say, it’s politics. That’s Ezra Klein’s view, anyway:

It seems to me that the system worked. Democrats were able to slow the process down and convince both voters in Wisconsin and the national media that there was something beyond business as usual happening in Madison. National and state polls show they were successful in that effort. Walker and the Senate Republicans ignored the Democrats’ attempts at compromise and ignored the public turning against them and decided to pass the legislation anyway.

That was their prerogative, and now it’s up to the voters to decide whether to recall the eight Senate Republicans who are eligible for judgment this year, and to defeat Walker and the other Republicans in a year or two, when they become vulnerable to a recall election. That’s how representative democracy, for better or worse, works. The representatives can make unpopular decisions, but the voters can punish them for it. I thought that during the health-care debate, and I think that now–though I would be interested to see whether any of the conservative voices who were shocked and appalled by President Obama’s decision to ignore public opinion and finish health-care reform using the reconciliation process are calling for Walker’s head today. If not, I think they need to ask themselves what makes this case different.

I suppose I’m mostly with Ezra here–I can talk at length about how I’d like to see our political system take a more populist, participatory, parliamentary form, but in the end I concur: elections matter, majorities matter, the stability of the system matters (though I’ll admit that I’ve become a lot friendlier to the idea of recall elections than I was back in 2003, despite still wishing we could reform our system more fundamentally, rather than adding various often-easily-hijacked-by-outside-interests reforming corrections on to it). Still, all that being said, there is still the matter of these anecdotes aplenty, all observing that Walker and the Wisconsin GOP presented a false face during the 2010 elections, never hinting that they believed addressing the states budget crisis would require to turn on what many call “The Wisconsin Idea”. And that, I think, is a point where we can talk about differences, where we can talk about whether or not an action–this action by the Wisconsin GOP in particularly–truly is “democratic,” truly does respect the wishes of a community, a state, a people, to govern themselves as they understand themselves. For the Wisconsin understanding is, historically at least, deeply tied up with assumptions about egalitarianism and the public good. Whatever the power (or lack thereof) of the case which President Obama and the Democrats made to the American people for national health care reform, it greatly pales beside the associative power which unions have in the Badger State. Christopher Phelps put it this way:

Madison is a capital city filled with public employees who take pride in the knowledge that Wisconsin was, in 1959, the first state to recognize public workers’ collective-bargaining rights. The Wisconsin Idea–a classroom staple of the very schoolteachers whose labor rights are now threatened–has been given new life by the multitudes chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” Those who have been peopling (“occupying” is not quite the right word) the Wisconsin Capitol represent a remarkable diversity of professions and callings: corrections officers, graduate teaching assistants, letter carriers, carpenters, steelworkers, and students….In an equally arresting development, many school-board and county officials, although they might have been expected to welcome the prospect of weakened unions, have warned that the governor’s proposed dismantling of labor rights might mean a return to the disruption of basic services from strikes, as happened often in the era before collective bargaining….When Madison teachers called a “sick out,” a judge declined to issue an injunction against them on the basis that they were not violating their contractual obligation not to strike because they made no demands upon the school district and were instead protesting before the state government. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, promised when visiting Madison that on whatever day the measure is signed into law, “We will be in the streets.”

When I wrote about this conflict before, I wrote about it, at least in part, from my position as a conflicted, compromised localist–and that’s still my position. But my position is a populist and socialist one too. Achieving the kind of economic democracy, the kind of community integrity, the kind of equality and solidarity, that I’d like to see may be impossible (may, in fact, be utopian)…but to whatever degree it may be possible, it necessitates challenging those socio-economic presumptions which insist that serving the interests of corporations engaged in trade and investment, and the needs of banks and bondholders who establish the terms of those investments–in short, the imperatives of a mostly unregulated ever-expanding (and, therefore, ever-disrupting) marketplace–must take priority. Are unions a good tool for making such a challenge?

Front Porch Republic ended up hosting a strong exchange on this topic, as did Salon’s War Room blog, as did The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Kevin Carson’s contribution to the latter is must reading, for anyone–whether their inclinations lean communitarian (like mine) or libertarian (like his)–concerned about the requirements of economic independence and democracy. Basically he’s strongly pro-union, but he makes that case while pointing out that unions have, for decades (he takes it back to the Wagner Act; I would take it back even further, to the end of the Progressive era and the eclipse of the IWW–and its model of direct action in support of workplace democracy–by other union organizations, one’s less caught up in early 20th-century struggles with communism), been partners in making certain industrial capitalism maintained its stability and predictability. Collective bargaining agreements, the heart of the (for now) failed campaign in Wisconsin, are important, but not as important as unions could be were laws (and, perhaps, social and economic expectations) changed so as to allow them the operate a mutually supporting, networked guilds, capable of more direct (and less predictable) actions against firms and other economic actors that disrupt community life. But all that kind of talk–”community life” and the rest–can sound quaint when one is faced with losing the ability to bargain with one’s employer over wages and working conditions. It was those things, and the political processes that enable workers to be equal partners in the determination of them, which lay at the heart of the “Wisconsin Idea,” an undeniably Progressive vision which sought to streamline and reform and make fairer capitalism, not radically challenge it.

James Matthew Wilson’s thoughtful post at FPR is, I think, basically uncomfortable with unions, but primarily because he seems them as representing a kind of delusion, a characteristically American unwillingness to recognize that budgets, like everything else, must operate within limits. He allowed, though, when pressed by comments from me and others, that the same can be said of Governor Walker and Wisconsin GOP leaders: to present the removal of right for public employees to unionize and negotiate, a right which Wisconsin pioneered a half-century ago, as a fiscal correction necessary to resolving the state’s budget woes…while also passing a budget which grants large tax breaks and business incentives which cut into the state’s revenue, is, at the least, a little questionable. Could Walker make the case that, in following the economic imperatives of late capitalism–namely, luring national and international money to the state, in the form of businesses that will create jobs and turn profits–he is concerned with the “common good” of Wisconsin? That he is being the responsible one? Perhaps…but responsible to whom? This is a struggle that runs through much of the localist project, and it is not an easy one to resolve: what if it is the culture of a place, the will of a people (and the massive demonstrations in Madison have to be at least one demonstration of just what that culture or idea may be), is such that they are truly attached, in the fullest, most civic sense of the word, to compromises which the more radical among us disdain? Look at the blog Milwaukee Rising, pointed out to me by a fine FPR commenter; the author is no automatic friend of unions, and in fact recognizes them as anything but an oppressed minority voice in Wisconsin–yet also recognizes that what they are fighting for is part of the fabric of the state, connected to democratic traditions like the Open Meetings (something every believer in local government ought to support!), and basically central to the character of the state. That certainly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t or couldn’t be reformed (as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observes, it’s really not so much the collective bargaining itself which matters, as the simple fact of having structures that bring workers together, to recognize their common interests, express solidarity amongst themselves, and form “countervailing forces” to challenge those in positions of economic authority and power). It only means that, if one wishes to get all classically republican, and point out that unions partake of a system which presumes that portions of the whole will invariably be set against itself (a criticism which I reluctantly have to agree with), then one ought to accept 1) that wholly non-capitalist options should always be on the table, and 2) that if there are communities of people who have embraced one progressive-liberal response to the problems of capitalism, and made it so much their own it’s barely noticed until a politician tries to take it all away–which seems to be as good a description of the situation in Wisconsin today as any–then one ought, if one is a localist, to accept and embrace and work with and through it. The least democratic, least communitarian, least localist thing, it’s seems to me, would be to assume that the union-defenders of Wisconsin don’t know what they want, assume they aren’t doing this themselves (an assumption which, if posed, could be just as easily extended to Governor Walker himself), or assume that what they want is wrong, because the rules laid down the bankers and bondholders and corporations cannot possibly be lived within any other way.

Is the Wisconsin way a legitimate one? Michael Lind argued that unions represent just one of several strands of capitalism-reforming egalitarianism, and probably not the best either. Lind would prefer what he calls “social democracy”–a ground-floor of “universal, contributory social insurance programs,” rather than a patchwork of contracts providing wages and benefits sufficient for maintaining a family and a neighborhood (assuming the union lets you in the door). A response to him from Matthew Dimick points out the social insurance programs–like Social Security, for one–are invariably limited in their redistributive power, and become skewed in absolute terms towards the middle and upper-classes in society; the only way to keep the project of real economic equality politically feasible is to minimize the felt costs of universal social insurance programs, and that means lessening “pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality,” so that redistribution does not present such an obvious target. What can do that? The bargaining power of unions, he says. But Lind is doubtful–the increasing inequalities in American life, the ones which make all acts of economic redistribution suspicious, because so costly and obvious, to those in the middle and upper classes, is not, he thinks, something unions can do much about; the real scourge is a libertarian ethic, which has left the financial center unregulated, and the borders open:

The growth of American CEO salaries, extreme as it is in international comparison, has been dwarfed by the explosion of compensation to elites in the financial sector. The bonanzas reaped by the tycoons of finance result from the deregulation of the financial industry by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, combined with the socialization of the costs incurred by “too big to fail” financial firms. Vast fortunes have been made in finance by individuals who are allowed to keep the profits from highly-leveraged gambling, while their losses are absorbed by the taxpayers. If the financial industry in the U.S. had continued to be a tightly regulated utility, then elite bankers would never have become vastly richer than ordinary business executives. Pre-tax inequality in the U.S. would have been much reduced, unions or no unions….

While the top of the labor market in the U.S. has blown off, the bottom has fallen out at the same time. The decline of labor unions is one factor–but again, only one. Another factor has been mass immigration. With a few exceptions, like the late Barbara Jordan, most liberals refuse to admit that mass immigration by disproportionately poor and uneducated workers in the last generation has had anything to do with reducing wages for janitors, construction workers and nursing home aides….Mass immigration can harm unionization in two ways: directly, by providing an ever-growing pool of non-union “scabs” to replace workers who seek to unionize, and indirectly, by increasing divisions among workers along non-economic lines that increase the difficulty of collaboration. For two decades now, some utopian progressives have claimed that it is possible to reconcile mass immigration with increased unionization by unionizing both natives and immigrants. In theory anything is possible but in practice private sector union membership has continued to crumble in the face of mass immigration.

Lind’s doubts are shared by some of those libertarians as well; Jason Kuznicki, a smart and realistic libertarian thinker (I wonder why he hasn’t joined up with Bleeding Heart Libertarians yet?), makes some similar observations:

[I]t’s far from clear that labor unions can correct the specific type of inequality that we face today. CEO compensation is huge, yes, but the super-rich are not merely or even primarily CEOs these days. Instead, they’re generally in finance. How do you go on strike against an investment banker? Who exactly is he oppressing? Against the management of a steel mill, a union would be the right tool for the job. Here? I’m not convinced….I’m not denying that finance is capturing a larger and larger share of wealth. It certainly appears to be. The problem is that financiers don’t face a discrete class of disfavored people who can easily self-identify and organize to demand, through some workable mechanism, their fair share of the pie.

In reading these reasonable points–with which I’m pretty strongly tempted to agree whole-heartedly–I am struck my two points. First, that they presume, without any real question, that the structures of global capitalism–specifically, the financial institutions which generate the excess liquid capital that investors and businesspeople make use of–have enabled certain individuals to enrich themselves enormously, to the detriment of general equality and thus the health of the body politic. Second, that they throw up their hands when confronted by such structures; Lind would prefer these institutions be treated as a “tightly regulated utility,” and Jason imagines that “higher marginal tax rates” ought to be in out future, but neither contemplate trying to find an alternative to, or a means of operating without, such inequality-generating, and hence equality and solidarity-destroying, global structures in the first place….especially since developing such alternative, non-global, more localized, ways of conducting transactions and fulfilling social and economic needs would likely go hand in hand with addressing the second significant cause of pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality in the United States which Lind mentioned: namely, a porous border that benefits (sometimes) many thousands of undocumented workers every year, and lines the pockets (always) of many cut-rate, highly profitable corporations every year, but doesn’t do much at all for the general community, the nation, in between. I suppose it actually doesn’t surprise to not see this connection made by Jason, as I assume our cultural perspectives are too far apart for him to make the leap from his libertarian position to my communitarian, democratic socialist one, however much we may agree on the problem of inequality. But I am surprised that Lind doesn’t make it. Perhaps he’s too much of a nationalist to recognize that some ideas worth fighting for aren’t country-wide; they may be particular to a state. They may be found, for instance, in Wisconsin.

A confession: I’ve been to Wisconsin only twice. Went to a national high school debate tournament held in Eau Claire back in 1985, and I went to an international conference to J.G. Herder in Madison a few years ago. So truly, I don’t know the state at all. But I know the legacy of Bob La Follette, and I know that, if I’m going to be caught between radical visions of decentralism and economic reform, and a corporate liberalism which is satisfied with mitigating capitalism where and when it may, then I like La Follette’s determination to weave the best compromise he could into the social fabric; to make his vision–much of which apparently became second-nature to the socio-economic expectations and preferences of most Wisconsinites until this very day. That’s not going to create the perfect localist, or populist, or socialist community. But it’d create a pretty fine state. So as long as there are unions who seem to be capable, whatever their overall conceptual limitations, for fighting for that idea, for fighting for that state, then I’ll support them–I’ll support Wisconsin. Sure hope Governor Walker doesn’t trash the place any further.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Joe Carter March 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm

except for the police and firefighters, who perhaps not coincidentally tended to support him in the election.

That’s inaccurate. The state police and firefighter unions supported Walker’s opponent.

http://politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2011/feb/21/donna-brazile/donna-brazile-says-unions-supported-scott-walker-a/

avatar mushroom March 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Dr. Fox, at the risk of getting my butt kicked by someone far more intelligent and informed than myself, I’m going to jump in on this. I sincerely do not understand the hard union love expressed on FPR.

Having, as a misguided youth, fallen in to the state worker slough, the happiest day of my life was finding a job in the private sector. Remember, these are the same folks that you deal with down at the DMV. I am finding it very hard to work up sympathy for them.

I might question the need for unions at all in the modern world, but I don’t want to lead the discussion astray. Some of the union members involved are teachers. They are endowed with what passes for education these days. I don’t know how teachers are hired, but I assume it is by the school board or the school administration. They present resumes. They negotiate for salaries, do they not? They choose to accept or reject the position and compensation offered.

I’m a white-collar worker — not a manager — but I get paid a salary. I work very long hours and can be called on any hour of the night or day, any day of the week, 365 days a year. I have been called while on vacation and at even more inconvenient times. If I didn’t like my job or could not deal with the working conditions, I’d go out and find another one. If my employer decides I’m not doing my job, or if somebody in a management position just doesn’t like me, I can be terminated without recourse — which is as it should be since it is, after all, not my job but my employer’s. I didn’t create the position, and I’m not funding the position. I am merely fulfilling the requirements of it in exchange for an agreed upon recompense.

A second issue, these unions are not negotiating with evil greedy capitalist freebooting multinational corporations whose only concern is profit and shareholder dividends. This is the state. It is not just non-profit; it is an ever-expanding sinkhole of bureaucratic growth and expenditure. The more money you give a bureaucracy or a public-sector entity, the more money it will want next year to be, generally, even less productive than it was the year before.

If I have a problem with my employer, and I don’t want to suck it up for some reason, I can go to my HR people. I know the state probably has something like a “personnel division” — most likely schools do as well. I mean, they have employees that are “middle-school media coordinators” and “curriculum coordinators”, so I’m sure they have a human resource, um, resource. Why would a teacher need to be part of a union? Why would any professional need to be part of a union?

I am tempted to be un-christian and say that all these protesters are lazy, worthless thugs bussed in by their union bosses, none of whom would be able or willing to hold an honest job or break a sweat for a day. In my better moments I don’t think that is the case. However, I do have some difficulty imagining how state agencies and school districts could exploit workers in the way that old-fashioned robber barons industrialists did.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 10, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Joe, thanks very much for that correction. I’m going to remove that statement from the post.

Mushroom, don’t ever feel reluctant to jump into a conversation; that’s what blogs are for.

I sincerely do not understand the hard union love expressed on FPR.

Er…you realize you’re basically just talking about me, and no one else, correct? Joy Pullman’s post on Wisconsin was wholly critical of the Wisconsin unions, as was Dan Knauss’s. James Matthew Wilson’s post was more philosophical in its aims, but it’s language is fairly critical of unions in general (though he expanded his critic, I think rightly, as I noted in this post). Then there was Jason Peters’s post, where he said some non-critical things about the unions, but it really wasn’t a post about the conflict. So, ultimately, this “hard love” you say you see is two posts by moi, separated by almost three weeks. I appreciate the compliment you’re paying me, but I assure you, it’s not deserved.

Remember, these are the same folks that you deal with down at the DMV.

Interestingly, the only truly bad experience I can remember having at a DMV was in Virginia quite a few years ago, and even that one wasn’t that bad. Virginia, it should be noted, is a state the refuses to allow its public employees to engage in collective bargaining. Correlation? Probably not, I’m sure.

If my employer decides I’m not doing my job, or if somebody in a management position just doesn’t like me, I can be terminated without recourse — which is as it should be since it is, after all, not my job but my employer’s. I didn’t create the position, and I’m not funding the position. I am merely fulfilling the requirements of it in exchange for an agreed upon recompense.

If your vision of the workplace relationship begins and ends with a contract, one in which one side (the employer) holds complete power and the other side (the employee) holds none, save their ability to exit at any time, then we have very different ideas about the way wealth grants social power to those who possess it, and about the negative consequences of such inequality. Suffice to say, I think those who labor can be, and regularly are, exploited–in terms of pay, working conditions, and more–by those in positions of power, and due to the way firms may collude with one another, or may move about their investments in pursuit of profits, they can take actions which disrupt the ability of individuals to find fulfilling work, or can hold communities hostage to their demands. The power to exit a contract is, often, rather meaningless if you have committed yourself to mastering a specialized task that makes you less than adaptable when it comes to searching for other jobs, to say nothing of the costs on one’s children and family if one cavalierly decides to exercise one’s “freedom” and quit. Unions are by no means a panacea to this situation, but they are one important tool which has historically kept working conditions and wages stable enough in order to allow for the flourishing of local communities (which is one of the primary aims of this whole website, after all).

These unions are not negotiating with evil greedy capitalist freebooting multinational corporations whose only concern is profit and shareholder dividends. This is the state.

And that is a valid concern. Unions negotiating with private firms are engaged in tug-of-war with the marketplace in general; increased costs in payroll are absorbed in increased prices which are absorbed (or not) by the consumer. Truly, things work differently with public employee unions. But then again, exactly how much differently to do they work? The real purpose of a union, as I noted in the post, and as I think most convinced localists and decentralists and radical democrats would recognize, is to provide forums for workers to identify with one another, and present their case to those who control their working conditions and wages–in this case, the state government. Does the fact that the broader contract, to use your own term, of our relationship with those from whom we “purchase” police protection, or education for our children, is mediated through a progressive scaled and somewhat redistributed series of taxes, invalidate the whole relationship, including the inequality potentially involved? I don’t see why it would.

I do have some difficulty imagining how state agencies and school districts could exploit workers in the way that old-fashioned robber barons industrialists did.

To my knowledge, no one has said they have been so exploited. Indeed, the teachers unions were happy to go along with the budget cuts and other fiscal reforms Governor Walker proposed. They just didn’t want to lose their ability to effectively, collectively, bargain with their employers–namely, the government. The community-ruining exploitation inherent in the capitalist marketplace has, thankfully, not been a feature of the working lives of Wisconsin’s public employees for a good long time; one of the reasons for that (not the only reason, but certainly one of them) has been unions. And now Walker wants to make those unions significantly more toothless. Hence, the problem.

avatar mushroom March 11, 2011 at 1:23 am

Thank you, Dr. Fox, for your very kind response. I think we probably agree quite a bit on where we’re going, and perhaps less on how to get there. And you’re correct, of course, with regard to some of the other opinions on the Front Porch. I am given to hyperbole.

The employee by dint of his talents and abilities is hardly powerless. Even the relatively unskilled can negotiate on the basis of character, if nothing else. The most coldly analytical of MBA’s are generally wise enough to recognize the need to find and keep good employees. So, while I regard the job as belonging to my employer, I also believe most employers have been fortunate to have me work for them. And with the exception of my time as a state worker where I was extremely disruptive, all of my employers would agree with that. I simply prefer to bargain as an individual rather than trying to drag everybody else along with me.

It seems to me that unions, more or less by definition, have to hit a sort of lowest common factor. Picturing it as a bell curve, the union negotiation is going to end up near the mean, plus or minus a standard deviation. That’s great for the employees in the left tail, not so great for the people under the right tail. Now my illustration may or may not be valid, but I have that sort of a perception of the union function.

I do think the main issue, though, is the public sector part of it. I don’t want to drive good people out of government, if that’s what they want to do with their lives. God bless ‘em for it. I don’t want to leave them powerless against what can be a faceless bureaucratic machine. I just think there’s got to be a better way than unions. I do know a few teachers who will actually speak to me. I even have family members that are teachers. From what I can gather of the unions’ agendas, they do not represent the views of the teachers I know.

I’d love to get into the “community-ruining exploitation inherent in the capitalist marketplace”. That is just a ripe and beautiful line. But I’m going to have to quit for tonight. I have to work tomorrow.

Again, thank you so much for such a noble and gentlemanly response.

avatar HappyAcres March 11, 2011 at 9:05 am

I join Mushroom. Only a thorough university indoctrination could lead someone this far astray.

avatar Jeff Polet March 11, 2011 at 9:13 am

RAF:

This is a very thoughtful piece that not only raises all sorts of issues, but will reveal a number of faultlines, some of them I suspect cutting across the Porch itself. There is much to say about the esay, but I do want to respond to the question of how the authority of public opinion varies from Obamacare to Walker’s putative union-busting (and I say this as someone who is far more skeptical of the virtues of democracy than you appear to be).

The reason why public opinion mattered with Obamacare was not because he was proposing legislation that was unpopular – no conservative worth his or her salt would want legislation done by opinion poll. The issue there was a piece of legislation that directly affected in a very profound way the life of every person in this country. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of people in this country saw that legislation as giving them less control over a fundamental part of their lives, and at greater cost. In that sense, citizens were asking the government to, if nothing else, please slow down.

But in Wisconsin the issue revolves no so much around the private lives of citizens but the political power of a particularly constituted class that sustains itself through a system of coercive taxation. As you know, the Framers feared the formation of a permanent class of public employees as constituting an interested group that would have privileged access to the instruments of government power in order to promote their own interests. This, it seems to me, is what the debate in WI is largely about. Frankly, I don’t know what recourse the citizen who is not a public employee has to restrict the machinations of those classes unless it be through the election of a person who is willing to take on those unions. The opinion polls, since you seem to think they matter, coming out of WI seem to show this division: Walker has polarized the electorate in that state. The Phelps quote you provide above demonstrates this should not be surprising, for a significant percentage of the population in WI (and in Madison in particular) are dependent on government largesse. Given the levels of self-interest involved, I see no reason to give them a waiver on their motives. In other words, unlike health-care, which affected everyone directly, this only affects some people directly and others indirectly, but those who are affected indirectly are right to be concerned about the budgetary consequences of public-workers unions.

avatar Jeff Schultz March 11, 2011 at 10:16 am

“those who are affected indirectly are right to be concerned about the budgetary consequences of public-workers unions.”

And not just about budgetary consequences, but also about the very idea that public employees have a right to organize for the sake of improving their lots at the expense of the taxpayers who foot the bill.

I am not convinced that the proper response to the power of employers is to check it with the power of unions. Union leaders have been clear that they exist for one purpose only — to serve the perceived interests of their members. They are not about nourishing community and democratic values.

What recourse does the non-union taxpayer have in the face of ever-increasing tax bills caused (in part) by public-sector workers pooling their power to elect a semi-permanent political elite who are happy to funnel more and more benefits to union members who keep them in office? Because that’s what the Wisconsin Idea has become.

avatar Jeff Schultz March 11, 2011 at 11:09 am

Let’s also remember that public union protesters in Madison are being paid to be there by the taxpayers themselves. Union membership gives them the power to organize and strike against perceived inequities. But in this case the employer (the taxpayer) has no equivalent power to organize, skip work at full salary, make a public case for their interests, and garner sympathetic media attention.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

Perhaps Polet’s pillaging of Peters’ Grog Cabinet has its beneficial aspects as he cuts into the meat of the issue here in my suspect estimation.

Collective Bargaining by Public Employees is a form of bargaining where the fix is generally already in as those who they bargain with are not bargaining with their own money. Seems to me its been a comfortably ceremonial briar patch for too long, hence debt flirting with GDP in far too many locales.

My favorite Union Story though is when the Chair lift operators and other support crews of Aspen organized and went on strike many decades ago. The Suits from Chicago flew in wearing their sharkskin uniforms and polished shoes and were seen shivering and stamping their feet , hoping the controversy might come to an end with not enough scabs up in the mountains to cross the pickets. This was when those resorts were a hell of a lot more interesting than they are today. Dogsled Races were a big event. The era of $20 million “ski chalets” , TED Conference and stacked up shiny private jets was in the future. Nothing is quite so pathetic as a man in a tight suit shivering so much he can’t get his cigarette in his mouth.

avatar Bob March 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Jeff: in light of the comments and discussion on Joy Pullman’s post, your wit here is falling flat. First of all, if you’re not going to dispute or apologize for the tremendous tax breaks that Walker has given to corporations, then complaining about the financial burden of paying public workers reasonably well just wastes our time. Second, if you’re sufficiently libertarian in orientation that you just think that states taxing people to pay for things like teachers is unjust, then you should just make that clear; the rest of us will then know whether or not it’s worth arguing with you over details. If you aren’t that libertarian, then you need to say more about why you think that the people who provide us with important and valuable public services should not be able to come together to insist that they not get screwed over. From your comments, one might think that you were talking about a bunch of people who get paid the big bucks to sit around and eat lunch all day. Finally, it might help to get it out of the way early on: it is not sufficient for an argument against unionization or collective bargaining rights to show that these things can be misused or otherwise have bad consequences. If that were sufficient, then we should prohibit the production and sale of all alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. I doubt you’d accept that conclusion; so don’t make the same mistake in the case of unions.

avatar Jeff Schultz March 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Bob,
I wasn’t trying to be witty, I don’t see where I criticized “paying public workers fairly well,” nor have I expressed resentment at paying taxes to cover teacher salaries. Since you appear to be interacting with something other than what I’ve actually written and believe, I’m at a loss as to how to respond.

I did express concerns over how compensation gets established and whether public unions really serve a public or private good. I’ve not even asserted that public servants may not come together, simply that it’s not necessary that they do, that their doing so is not an unalienable right, and it in fact tends to have negative consequences for the public they nominally serve.

Unfortunately, public unions are not a private consumer item like tobacco which I can choose to use well or poorly. They are forced on me with demonstrably negative consequences for the public, and they operate without even the constraints of market profitability to check their power (as with private sector unions).

If you’re concerned about people getting “screwed over,” please explain how parents can come together to stop getting screwed over by teachers’ unions that protect unqualified, unmotivated, unproductive, and un-fireable teachers. I tire of being told that citizens who want decent public education for their kids and who resent being asked to pay more money for an increasingly poor “education” are screwing over the teachers. I will gladly pay higher taxes if we can have the right to get rid of people who have no business in front of a classroom.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 14, 2011 at 10:36 am

Thanks for the fine comments, everyone! Sorry I’ve been slow in responding. Let me see if I can catch up a little bit:

Mushroom,

It seems to me that unions, more or less by definition, have to hit a sort of lowest common factor….That’s great for the employees in the left tail, not so great for the people under the right tail. Now my illustration may or may not be valid, but I have that sort of a perception of the union function.

I think your perception of how unions and function and what they do is limited, but not necessarily wrong, and that has to be taken into consideration by those of us who defend them. As I see it, the primary good that unions can (not always, but usually) provide, the primary source of the “countervailing power” which they make it possible for workers to present against those who have relative economic power over their livelihoods, is the opportunity they provide for organization, expressions of solidarity, and the experience of collective decisionmaking. I value those goods highly. Are they purchased at the price of squelching innovative brilliance, in favor of dutiful plodding? Probably, sometimes, though I don’t think always. So it comes a question of what you value most: is guaranteeing security to mediocre workers worth establishing terms which oblige them to see their commonalities with one another, and give the opportunities to act upon such? I think so.

Jeff P.,

[T]he Framers feared the formation of a permanent class of public employees as constituting an interested group that would have privileged access to the instruments of government power in order to promote their own interests. This, it seems to me, is what the debate in WI is largely about….The opinion polls, since you seem to think they matter, coming out of WI seem to show this division: Walker has polarized the electorate in that state. The Phelps quote you provide above demonstrates this should not be surprising, for a significant percentage of the population in WI (and in Madison in particular) are dependent on government largesse. Given the levels of self-interest involved, I see no reason to give them a waiver on their motives.

This is an interesting observation, because it seems to be two-pronged, though perhaps that’s not the way you intended it to be read. In the first case, there is the problem which many (though, let us remember, not all) of the Framers saw in making certain institutions of government permanent, recognizing that in doing so, government would necessarily be creating a class of people whose economic and social interests become the government itself. (I actually think Rousseau expressed this best, with his concerns about the “corporate will.”) In the second case, there is the fact that, for better or worse, the economic and social interests of those same workers have become closely identified with, and closely entwined with, the local conception of the community within which those workers dwell itself–in other words, Wisconsin, or at least a large enough portion of it to get a close to hundred thousand people (in a city with a total population of less than three times that) to camp out around the capitol building and express their disdain. This is the point of the much-repeated “Wisconsin Idea.”

Perhaps the proper response is to find this simply a horrifying expression of the logic of modern democracy–the people have voted themselves so many governmental privileges that they feel offended when the government doesn’t change the economic rules to suit them! But what, exactly, are the alternatives on the table? Are we to ignore the levels of business and corporate “self-interest” likely involved in the shaping of Governor Walker’s and the Republican party’s motivations, then? Why? Because they are fewer in number, and therefore more trustworthy than the masses carrying signs? (Of course, they may not, actually, be fewer in number, just louder; the upcoming state supreme court race, and the following recall election drives, will test that question.) Surely you cannot make the argument that Walker, in cutting taxes to attract outside businesses, and opening up public resources for outside private investment, is serving the “common good” of the state…unless, that is, one concludes that such tending to the health of a polity is to be measured primarily in terms of friendliness to investors and overall economic health. Which, to be sure, is a fair conclusion. But it is not one, I think, that is particularly respectful of communities and localities governing themselves.

This is, I grant, a hard and perplexing issue for localists. What we have is a community which, from what we can tell so far, both strongly and democratically demands a continuation of a strong entwining of its interests to the government. The argument of (again, only most, not all of) the Framers would be that an entwining of interests is antithetical to community integrity and governance. Hence the tendency on the part of some localists to assume that the Wisconsin protesters must be paid off stooges of outside pro-union interests (false). But no; what we have is a people rising up and demanding, in the spirit of the Tea Party, something exactly opposite what the Tea Party asks–”don’t take away the power of our unions to tell the government what to do!” I think, the wishes of (most of) the Framers notwithstanding, I prefer their motivations to Walker’s. Local communities are, in the end, significantly (if not entirely) about the people who actually live there, and for now, I hear there wishes of those people to maintain the power of their unions as worthy of more respect than the bleatings of Walker & Co. Of course, if respect doesn’t translate into votes, that’s a different question, as both 2008 and 2010 proved…

More in another comment.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 14, 2011 at 10:55 am

Jeff S.,

I am not convinced that the proper response to the power of employers is to check it with the power of unions. Union leaders have been clear that they exist for one purpose only — to serve the perceived interests of their members. They are not about nourishing community and democratic values.

I agree (with only a slight qualification) with your first two sentences. I think unions often are a good response to the power of employers; certainly historically that has been the case. But I’ll concur that they are not always a good response, and sometimes they are an outright bad response. Though, of course, the relative scale of “good” and “bad” responses depends upon what else is on the table. In an political and economic system like the United States, which lacks the structures for formal joint labor/business “workers councils” such as exist around much of the industrialized world, the oppositional logic of unions, however rife with abuse they may sometimes be, may nonetheless seem appealing.

It is also certainly true that unions are not laboratories of virtue or excellence. They are wholly self-interested in their members–and as a consequence, as I admitted to Mushroom above, one must accept, if one accepts unions, the real possibility that a level of mediocrity will come to dominate. In the grandest egalitarian sense, unions aren’t even a particular good tool for economic equality and democracy: they are happy to collectively shape workers and their leaders to accommodations with wage capitalism, and become defensive about anyone who wishes to radically rethink its corporate foundations. There is, in the end, really only one thing you can be sure than a union is good for, and that is protecting and promoting as much as possible the wages and benefits of those in the union.

But that, Jeff, is why I disagree with your third sentence, or at least most of it. Yes, the internal structure of unions has often been undemocratic, sometimes even corrupt and criminal. But their mere existence, as much scholarship has demonstrated, serves to nourish local democracy and community integrity in the same way churches and civic organizations long have: by bringing people together, getting them to know one another, familiarizing themselves with their collective resources, and thereby generating trust and social capital. This is good for communities and democracy; just go and check the voter turn-out rates, or any number of other measures of civic health, which existed in the close, union-dominated neighborhoods of cities across the country in the 40s through the 70s, if you don’t believe me. And, besides all that, don’t ignore the real, practical, community-building effect of those wage and benefit protections. If a husband and father can bring home enough to feed his family, and get all the necessary medical treatment for his children, and maybe save a little for the family vacation, exactly how many divorces, how many moves, how many family feuds, wouldn’t take place? Again, the evidence from the heyday of unions in American suggests the answer is: more than a few. The suburban middle-class life of the police officer or school teacher or city planner or sanitation worker or some other government worker is nothing to sneeze at, if one really does care about making it possible for more people to make it where they are, and their children too.

avatar Bill March 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Doesn’t it seem wrong to give collective bargaining rights to a union that collects dues and uses them to fund the election campaigns of the people it is exercising its bargaining rights against? Doesn’t it seem wrong to have police and firefighters threaten to boycott businesses if they refuse to stand in solidarity with them over their collective bargaining rights? Can they be trusted to carry out their legal duty to protect citizens against lawbreakers?

There is a difference between private sector unions and public sector unions. In the private sector, a company can go out of business over union negotiations. In the public sector, the government CAN’T go out of business! They are an endless source of money whose origin is the taxpayer.

avatar Steve Berg March 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm

There are other major differences between possibly porch friendly private sector unions, and their public union comrades. If I seek to have plumbing or electrical work done on my humble abode, I can choose either a union or non-union contractor. I have no choice whatsoever in the hiring of union teachers, police officers, fire fighters and public works crew members. There is the extremely remote possibility that I might be able to support a fiscally responsible school board member or city council member who manages to run the union gauntlet, and get elected. But this is a rare event that should be celebrated while that lone voice is soon shouted down and then voted off their respective board.

Dr. Fox has an exemplary theoretical knowledge of labor unions, despite getting a might bit confused as to the different natures of the public and private sector varieties. Mine is more practical in nature. Unions of both persuasions claim to value two primary values, seniority and solidarity. In practice, they tend to ignore the solidarity part, along with other lesser considerations such as helping their less senior members, or those in their ranks facing some disadvantages. I am mostly familiar with the public sector unions, so I will not discuss here how my father and his brothers were all screwed out of their pension funds by the bricklayers union.

When I was a public management intern, I wound up on the management (Boo–Hiss!!!) negotiating with the AFSCME local representing our municipality’s E-911 dispatchers and the public works department. The contract proposed by the union negotiator, from the Pontiac State Prison, would have really only benefited the two most senior members of public works department, who were the sons of a former mayor and were put in there as patronage appointments. We realized that this was unjust, and were well aware of our fiduciary duties to the hard pressed taxpayers of this hard hit blue collar community. We also wanted to correct some significant gender equity considerations related to the pay of the dispatchers who were mostly single mothers. We wound up negotiating a better contract for the majority of the union members than their own union had proposed. And we did so prudently so as to not further erode the shaky finances of this municipality.

A friend of mine manages a section of a public health agency. The staff is unionized, and is “represented” by the good old AFSCME. One of the best employees there had to be fired as the union contract did not allow any management discretion for dealing with problems commonly encountered by a young woman with small children who had been abandoned by her husband. This woman was one of the best at a very difficult and challenging job, but that was of no account. She did not have seniority, and the work rules could not be altered. I sometimes wonder what AFSCME has against single moms.

In my own case, I am “represented” by the American Federation of Teachers. I am not a member, of course, but I must pay an amount of dues, set by the union so they can negotiate on my behalf. The union was voted in years ago, and I was not involved in the election. Getting rid of them in this benighted state is not possible. So, I am glad to see that among other reforms Governor Walker of Wisconsin signed a bill requiring annual re-certification elections for public sector unions. I wish we had that hear. At least I could vote my displeasure annually, if not get them voted out of our lives. My superiors have tried to give me raises, but have had to reduce my level of compensation to match what the union negotiates through collective bargaining. I pay them to do this. Of course, when the budget crisis hit, and many of us had our hours reduced to the point of losing any assistance with our insurance benefit package, the AFT stepped right up to the plate to fight for its membership. Oh wait, they did not. So much for solidarity. Just as we did not see a lot of peacefully rioting public union members across the Cheddar Curtain demonstrating Solidarity with their union comrades laid off by Harley Davidson. So much for solidarity.

Public unions, especially the teachers’ unions tend to be able to control the political process firmly enough to elect a compliant board or other legislature, and then negotiate from a position of great strength on matters of pay and benefits. Now, thanks to the globalism so fully and rightly deplored on this very website, the private sector taxpayers are no longer able to afford to pay these salaries, wages, and benefit packages. So, rather than building up local middle class families, public unions are seriously damaging them. Unions may be useful in theory, but then there are those three little words that libertarians are not able to utter without bursting into flame, “However in Practice…” We can no longer afford the public sector status quo.

avatar Jeff Schultz March 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Russell,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that unions served the purposes you mention years ago, but as others have pointed out, they have generally outlived their usefulness and often serve their own narrow interests (or even the interests of the union management) at the expense of others’ good. The goals which they used to stand for are still good goals; I don’t see much evidence that unions are actually pursuing those goals.

And as others have ably pointed out, public sector unions are an especially bad idea given the dangerous and corrupting mix of political influence, monopoly power, and insularity from market forces.

avatar Albert March 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Russell, Kevin Carson does go into the pre-Wagner Act forms of unions, which could be described more generally as workers associations, in the excellent, detailed paper he links to in that discussion.

The level of detail contained in his descriptions of the myriad organic, voluntary workers associations that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expand the imagination and put to rest a common notion that the “voluntary welfare state” is not practically possible. What disturbs me is an undercurrent of what John Milbank would call an ontology of violence in the piece, which I suppose it shares with most Marxist writings. But that issue does not negate from its achievements.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 16, 2011 at 10:28 pm

I was, for a brief time, shop steward of a union local representing employees of a private company which makes most of its money bidding for contracts from public entities. I didn’t get to vote on having a union either — it was done about five years before I was hired, but the shop steward at the time was the lady who had initiated an organizing campaign, and invited the union to come in. When I got to know the management, I was VERY glad to have a union. Its not that they were evil individuals. It is just that the natural pressures of the positions they held made it natural to run roughshod over any consideration for their employees, when the chips were down. They did, however, provide us with $10 gift cards at a local supermarket for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It is certainly true that union leadership can display all the venality and arrogance of capitalist management. So can public sector supervisors, which is one reason public sector unions have become necessary. The root problem is that members don’t take initiative to lead, or take back THEIR unions. In fact, members tend to look upon union reps as people they pay to get a job done FOR them. There have been some unions where a goon squad would come around if you challenged the local president. But there are plenty of unions where anyone who would take the job would be gratefully accepted as shop steward. My predecessor was quite bitter about people who never showed up for meetings. Yet, I always told people who asked, “You do NOT want to work for this company without a union!” I believed it, and still do.

It is not longer true that sixty percent of the workforce are employed in five or ten basic industries, engaged in mass production. Unions have been slow to adapt to this. There is such a thing as, no, the money really isn’t there. But that can be a very duplicitous claim. You mean, IF we don’t ask each citizen to chip in an extra dollar or two, THEN we must ask teachers families to cut their food, clothing and shelter back, or else lay a bunch off? That is rife for manipulation.

My mother remembers working with a church consortium that wanted to develop a hot meal program for school children, but were going to hire cafeteria workers and pay them a pittance, to keep the budget down. Mom, good lifelong Republican fiscal conservative that she is, the grand-daughter of a United Mine Workers of America organizer, also believes that the laborer is worthy of his hire. IF we are going to PAY people to do a job, albeit for a charitable mission or in public service, we damn well need to PAY THEM a decent wage, not impose a hidden subsidy to be involuntarily provided by the employees. Public sector unions have a legitimate role in keeping that principle on the table.

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