Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Comparisons between the anti-government protests in Wisconsin (now seemingly spreading to other states as well) and the anti-government protests spreading around the Arab world are undoubtedly overblown – whether one sees them both as popular expressions of authentic democratic values or whether one judges Midwestern attempts to frustrate the program of the democratically elected government as ultimately somewhat anti-democratic. Either way, the situations are sufficiently different to argue against trying to draw too many parallels or any too easy comparisons. That said, however, what is happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere may be almost as important for the future direction of American society as some of what has been happening in the Arab world is there.

The Wisconsin situation seems to invite ideological extremism. Either one is for public-employees’ unions - or not. Either one is for getting the deficit under control - or not. And, of course, the ideological divide is mirrored in the positions of the two political parties – the Democrats in general siding with the unions, the Republicans in general against them. In actual fact, of course, as in most real-world situations, both ideologies – and both parties - have valid points to make.

I grew up in the post-war “Baby Boom” years when the propserous American economy exceeded anything most people had ever previously experienced. Labor unions had contributed notably to this incredible elevation in the living standards of the “working class.” In fairness to organized labor, it is only right to recall that what we now look back on almost as a “golden age” for ordinary American workers was also the period when unions were most powerful. (That prosperity, incidentally, also coincided with significantly higher tax rates than today, but that is another discussion). Of course, the labor market has changed radically since then, radically altering the situaiton of organized labor.

All the attention being focused on public employees’ unions highlights the fact that labor union membership in the United States has been declining in recent decades and that the one area in which unions seem to have (until now) maintained a powerful position has been among government employees. No doubt there are multiple factors contributing to this, but one seems especially obvious. The decline of unions has corresponded to the movement of jobs away from the traditional bases of union power, in the first place, to other jurisdictions in the United States (e.g., “right to work” states) and more recently to other countries. “Globalization,” “free trade,” etc., have all been characterized by the movement of jobs away from the high-cost labor market in the US (and from the union-friendly states within the U.S.) Government employees are in contrast one group of workers whose jobs, for the most part, cannot move to cheaper foreign labor markets at home or abroad.

So the rise of government employees’ unions is in reality a commentary on the changed character of the global labor market – and the consequent decline of organized labor’s power. At the same time, it highlights how different is the position of government employees’ unions vis-à-vis private sector unions. In private industry, unions have an incentive to see companies make a profit. High Wages, benefits, and “job security” don’t count for much in the end if they help put a company out of business. But governments generally don’t go out of business. Unions have less incentive to moderate their demands, while the politicians on the other side of the bargaining table likewise have less incentive to alienate workers (who vote, after all, and whose unions endorse candidates and contribute to campaigns).

The latter point highlights yet another – specifically political – factor. Unions in general (and the teachers’ unions in particular) are notoriously pro-Democrat. Given the obscene amount of money that nowadays goes into political campaigns, unions represent one solidly Democratic constituency that can be relied upon for help at election time. Just as many Democrats (at least in theory) would like to eliminate or reduce the influence of corporate money in politics, many Republicans would just as logically like to do the same with organized labor. This particularly political dimension of the controversy seems especially evident in Wisconsin where it seems to be primarily the more reliably pro-Democratic unions that appear to have been targeted.

Some elements on the right have long disparaged public employees as somehow less deserving than private sector workers. While this may be largely unfair, it has worked. And then there is the special case of teachers’ unions, which are even more particularly unpopular because of the widespread perception (probably justified to a considerable extent) that teachers’ unions represent a major obstacle in the way of meaningful educational reform.

So there is plenty of right and wrong on both sides of the current shouting match.

As for the deficit, again there is plenty of blame to go around – in both political parties.

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