Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Democrats and Public Employee Unions

I regard Mickey Kaus (now blogging here) as something of a kindred spirit because he’s always asking himself a question that gnaws at me: what does it mean to be a true friend of equality in today’s political economy? Any liberal who takes that question seriously has to reckon with the unsettling possibility that some of his most insistent ideological reflexes are becoming anachronistic. You’ve got to hand it to Kaus, then, for not pulling his punches when he decides that some liberal orthodoxy has outlived its egalitarian rationale.

I came of age politically thinking that there’s something shameful about crossing a union picket line. So when I saw public employees demonstrating outside the Wisconsin Legislature, my sympathies gravitated to their side of the barricades.  Because I think that he’s a genuine friend of equality, I’m particularly interested that Kaus is warning people like me not to let an anachronistic reflex get the better of us.

He isn't taken in by Walker’s spin that this is just a dispute about balancing the state budget.  Kaus is happy to concede that rolling back public sector collective bargaining rights is a matter of life and death for public sector unionism:  “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" (my emphasis).  Yet Kaus is breaking ranks with old-school liberals anyway because he’s persuaded that, even if unions can defeat Walker here and now, it’s self-defeating in the medium and long term for egalitarians to keep giving public sectors unions their unconditional support (my emphasis):
"[T]he 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 . . . [I]t should trouble even non-neo liberals. Democrats are the party that needs the government to be good at something other than mailing out checks.”
Kaus has a point. The union movement used to provide a lot of the ideological and organizational glue holding the New Deal coalition together because there was a stable confluence of interests among union members and other coalition members. Securing advantages for union members through collective bargaining didn't hurt other Democratic constituencies, and often conferred indirect benefits upon them by tightening up the labor market.  By the same token, unions' support for programs (like Social Security and Medicare) that conferred benefits unconditioned on union membership redounded to benefit of union members as well. 

There’s no comparable confluence of interests among public employees and other key Democratic constituencies now when private sector unionism is dying and state governments are facing insolvency. The interests of public and private sector employees are at odds inasmuch as the former’s contract demands are driving up taxes high enough to discourage private employment. There’s a clear conflict of interest between the providers and the beneficiaries of the public services (e.g., teachers and students) as the lucrative salary and benefits and restrictive work rules negotiated through collective bargaining drive up the costs, and therefore lower the quantity and quality, of public services available under a fixed public budget. And then there’s the age-old conflict of interest between public employees and the taxpayers who fund their salaries and benefits.

The only thing tying these constituencies together within the Democratic coalition for the time being is the prominent role compulsory public sector union dues play in financing Democratic Party campaigns that are successful only insofar as they paper over the widening conflicts of interest among core Democratic constituencies.  That's something that bad economic times, budget deficits and the Scott Walkers and Chris Christies of this world are making harder for Democrats to do all the time.  Under the circumstances, Democrats surrendering to their reflex to go all out for public sector unions is looking less and less like a recipe for winning elections and promoting equality effectively after they've been won.

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