Which Side Are You On?

The battle in Madison is a reminder of the importance of unions

I’ll grant the current crop of Republicans this much: They sure know how to change the subject. Is there a long-term debt problem caused by spiraling health care costs? Easy: take the opportunity to gut domestic programs without tackling health care (that is, non-reproductive health care) at all.

Has the recession shrunk state revenues while increasing demand for social programs? Also easy: Take the chance to end public employees’ right to bargain collectively. Never mind that there’s no correlation between state fiscal health and whether public employees can unionize. This is a chance to union-bust, and it can’t be wasted.

That, in short, is the story of what’s been happening out in Wisconsin for the past few weeks. Like many states, Wisconsin is facing a budget shortfall. There are many ways it could  handle this. Perhaps the most sensible would be repealing the balanced budget amendment to its constitution, which would allow it to weather recessions without cutting services when residents need them most, or raising taxes when the economy is fragile.

Alternately, it could bite the bullet and make hard cuts and tax hikes. It’s doubtful this course of action would provoke much outrage. Leaders of public employee unions in Wisconsin have signaled their willingness to accept pay and benefit cuts, in the interest of balancing the budget. But Republican governor Scott Walker has rejected their overtures. He is demanding not just cuts, but an end to collective bargaining on the part of state workers altogether.

This is not about balancing the state budget. If Walker cared about that, he’d engage union leaders in talks and hammer out a compromise. This, rather, is the last play in a decades-long attempt by Republicans, to kill off the American union movement. It started with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which banned union-only workplaces and allowed the government to kill strikes, reached critical velocity when Ronald Reagan used the bill’s powers to break the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981, and is culminating in the efforts of Walker and other Republican governors.

It would be easy to credit this development to crass interest group politics. Republicans have long been the party of business, and, wanting to keep donations and third-party spending from corporations and their executives flowing, they are naturally inclined to support legislation disrupting unions and keeping their corporate backers from paying higher wages.

But a healthy union movement, more than being a threat to corporate interests, is a direct political threat to economic conservatives themselves. After all, conservatives don’t adopt their beliefs just because that’s where the money is; that is surely part of it for professional politicians, but one would have to be unrealistically cynical to think it the whole story.

Rather, conservatives, like anyone else, want to get their preferred policies adopted, and realize that they need a powerful interest group on their side if they are to win electoral and legislative battles. What’s more, success will be a cakewalk if their opponents lack support from a similarly powerful interest group. Historically, that has been a key role of the union movement: a source of political power for progressives that can counter the role of corporations. And as union ranks have dwindled, so have prospects for progressive economic change.

Recent political science research supports this general hypothesis. Jacob S. Hacker ’94 and Paul Pierson’s book Winner-Take-All Politics argues compellingly that falling union membership plays a major part in skyrocketing income inequality in America, and in the country’s general rightward movement in recent decades. Cross-country comparisons bear this out. In 2008, 11.9 percent of American workers were in a union. In Denmark, Finland, and Sweden—which enjoy the most humane welfare states in the world—that figure nears 70 percent.

The same trend can be seen historically within the U.S. In 1973, 24 percent of American workers were in a union, double the current rate. Richard Nixon, the then-president, proposed a national child-care program, a government-provided minimum income for all, and a health care bill more comprehensive than the one passed last year. And he was a conservative. Surely, the decline in union fortunes has something to do with today’s Democrats championing what was the right-wing option in 1970s America.

The protests in Wisconsin are an inspiring sight, and show the kind of mass organizing for progressive causes that unions are capable of. But even if they succeed in making Walker back down, there is plenty of work left to be done. The Obama administration, for its part, is doing an admirable job of fighting state-level efforts to disrupt union organizing, but federal legislation is needed if the union movement is to regain its past strength. Such action is unlikely with the Republican-controlled House, but if Democrats make gains in 2012, and want a chance of preserving them long-term, they would do well to keep the needs of the union movement in mind.

Dylan R. Matthews ‘12, a Crimson editorial writer, is currently studying abroad at Cambridge University. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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