“Do you have to love labor unions to be a good Democrat?”
It’s time for Democrats, even liberal Democrats, to start looking at unions and unionism with deep skepticism.
I don’t mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they’ve been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don’t need a union so much, do you?
I agree. Unions fought the good fight “back in the day” and served as a much-needed check on corporations as they gained hard-won victories for workers. Government regulations and oversights were instituted. But once those battles were won, union leaders expanded the definition of “union rights” and warned of bogey men so that they can keep the membership always fighting for something more and keep themselves in power. But this has led to problems for private sector unions whose demands resulted in a sort of workplace stasis.
At the same time unions were winning government protections, changes in the economy were making mainstream unionism itself an impediment to growth. We are no longer living in a World War II world in which big, slow-moving bureaucratic organizations are the engines of prosperity. Only fast-moving, flexible organizations prosper today. Technology changes too rapidly. Firms have to be able to make snap decisions: expand here, contract there, change the way they work every day. That was the lesson of Japan–how 1,000 little improvements in productivity can add up to a big advantage.
As Kaus explains, too many unions are stuck in the 1950’s and their solution is to keep doing what worked in the ’50’s. Yet, even though times have changed, more strident unionism is “the official Democratic Party dogma. No dissent allowed.” As market forces have shrunk private sector unions, government unions continue to grow, funded by tax dollars appropriated by the Democrats they’ve hired. In particular, Kaus is no fan of the modern teacher unions:
When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it’s been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.
He also knows that some Democrats recognize the problem:
“The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits…while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide…but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact.”
That quote is from Willie Brown, a Democratic hero, explaining why the state may go the way of Vallejo and General Motors. Easy for him to say; he’s retired. But you won’t catch any Democrats who are running for office saying it. They’re too dependent on organized labor’s money and muscle.
I doubt that Kaus will win his bid for Senate and I also doubt that there will be a serious rift between the union leaders and Democrat politicians any time soon. After all, the system works for them.