Several commentators on the national scene have supported Wisconsin Governor Walker and others with the argument that public employee unions are political fund raising machines that work to elect their bosses (mostly Democrats) who are then under their control. With the political clout thus engineered, bargaining becomes a sham because they are sitting on both sides of the table. Busting the unions will return them to their rightful place as employees of the public and accountable to the public for their jobs, performance, pay and benefits. Moreover, pro business governors, such as Walker, will assure that state governments, no longer controlled by unions, will also no longer hamper business development with anti business regulation and inefficient bureaucratic enforcement of the few regulations that are needed.
There are some very interesting assumptions and projections in that argument.
Before looking at them it is important to also recognize the germ of truth in them. There are some public employee unions that have shown little regard for the public good, and approached the bargaining table as if it was a war zone from which only one victor would emerge. It is also true that private industry unions can also be extremely short sighted. That is not characteristic of the labor movement as a whole, although people remembering the labor strife of the mid-twentieth century may have a hard time believing that times have changed.
It is also true that public employee unions can raise a lot of money for political purposes, back candidates and turn out the vote.
However, the idea that Democrats elected to state legislatures and governorships with labor backing are under the thumb of the unions at bargaining time, or any time, lacks evidence. Union funds raised for an election are only fraction of what gets spent. Candidates they back are also backed by other, often competing, interests. The votes they can turn out may provide a turning point edge, but recent elections challenge even that idea. By their nature unions represent particular employee groups that are often in competition with each other and have a hard time coordinating a united voice in lobbying or bargaining. The days of a political leader being bought and paid for by labor are over. Labor can have influence, but not control.
A part of what is going on is a form of psychological projection. The so called pro business political interests are accusing the public employee unions of being able to do precisely what they themselves are doing. The days of a political leader being bought and paid for by private interests are not over. Especially with the Citizen’s United ruling, corporations are perfectly capable of farming their own crops of state legislators and governors from seedling to harvest. Technically unions could do that also, but the private sector union movement has been effectively emasculated, and the public sector unions, for all the publicity, are simply not that dominant or wealthy.
Entering into the fray are two other elements, each of them well known to American political history. Ideologically driven political activists are one element. At present they are represented by the so called Tea Party movement of extreme libertarianism. They are willing to risk the benefits of modern society in exchange for relief from regulations that they see as a hinderance to their freedom. They would rather take their chances with matters of health, safety and welfare than have government involved in them. The other element is the return of the robber baron. Particular persons of great wealth who control the production of goods and services in significant portions of the economy are able to bankroll candidates who, if elected, will be their personal agents in setting and enforcing public policy.
I’m not sure what will happen. Most likely the unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere will be busted. Imputed efficiencies will be brutally imposed on public employees. Some of them will turn out to be good ideas, but on the whole they will lead to a deterioration of the quality of life. The public will eventually discover that Tea Party ideology leads toward third world status, that major corporations are global entities not national entities, and that the American economy is only a subset of a very complex global economy. New state governments will be elected that will restore bargaining rights to unions that will have become less steeped in hubris. Perhaps a new Teddy Roosevelt and a different Supreme Court will rein in the new generation of robber barons. Maybe we will learn that quality of life need not be a competition in which a few will win and many will lose. In the meantime, I think we are in for a very rough time of it, unless, of course, your own personal well being is based on your investments and not on your paycheck.