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Why Unions Matter, Part Three

September 16, 2018

I think its easy to see how neoliberalism would put a giant stake through the heart of private sector unions.   But what would be the advantage of breaking public sector unions, if they were not affecting the profit margins of a private enterprise?  Why such economic (and actual) hostility?

There is no one answer this question.  The answer is as complicated as it is multifaceted.  I will do my best to break it down as follows:

  1. The Libertarian Objection:  Many conservatives have accepted the libertarian/Randian perspective that there is no such thing as the collective good.  There are only individuals.  If you accept that as axiomatic, then collective bargaining is hostile to your view of economics and liberty.   You already think of tax collection as theft.  The idea that tax money would therefore go to pay unionized workers is unthinkable.  As former Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson described it, “all services should follow the Uber model.”
  2. The Taxation Objection:  The bastard child of the Libertarian Objection, this is the idea that government should be smaller, deliver fewer services, and charge little or no taxes.  Unionized workers bargaining for contracts that include cost of living increases and health insurance make it difficult to keep those precious taxes lower.  So, eliminate unions and their contracts, and you can, as Grover Norquist put it, “Cut government…down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”  It is this philosophy that has motivated the likes of Scott Walker and Rick Snyder to help crush collective bargaining in their pro-labor states.  You cannot cut taxes for the wealthiest residents of your state and balance your budget without cutting spending.  You can cut spending if your public sector workers have their salaries and benefits cuts.  That can’t really occur until you either dispose of (or signifantly hamper) collective bargaining.
  3. Fear of Solidarity:  As the Powell memorandum makes clear, businesses, multinational corporations, and the wealthy believe it to be a moral imperative to concentrate their power.  The biggest threat to that concentration is unionism.  Public sector workers have, by and large, been popular and provide services many citizens depend upon.  Becoming a unionized public sector worker has also been a common path for working class Americans–especially people of color–to join the middle class.  If being in a union is aspirational, that makes it a threat to wealth and power, public or private sector.  You remove that opportunity, it ceases to be an aspiration.  Wages are down, taxes are down–and profits are at record highs.  This is not an accident, or the result of the “Invisible Hand” of the market place.  This is engineered through legislation and litigation.

Another factor at play here is the distinctions between public sector employees.  Many public workers will be attacked and devalued by corporate media, with two notable exceptions:  police and fire departments.  The Janus v AFSCME decision affects these unions as well, but there is far less anxiety expressed from those bargaining units.  Part of the reason is that many police and fire departments tend to donate funds to Republican candidates, whereas other unions tend to support Democrats (for reasons I will get into in part four).  The other reason is that police and fire provide a service that the wealthy value over all the others:  they protect property.

It’s easy for corporate media to trash teachers, bus drivers, public health care workers, and public college professors, because those with wealth and power will never use their services.  If they are of no use, why pay for them?  But they have use for police officers and firefighters, so their collective bargaining units are tolerated.

Former journalist and current charlatan Campbell Brown for years has worked to try to privatize education–which cannot happen until the unions are gone.  Ms. Brown has sadly, run out of valid arguments to make her case, so she usually defaults to the charge that teachers unions “protect child molesters.”  What she is referring to is the due process rights public sector employees (and some private sector union members) have if if they are accused of misbehavior.  Police officers also have these due process rights, but Ms. Brown has yet to accuse police unions of “protecting child murderers.”  It would seem there is a double standard at work here.

Economists Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Pikkety have made it clear in their research that the higher standard of living brought about union contracts not only created the middle class, but the investment in public sector unions has injected billions of dollars into the economy.  Simply put, people with economic security spend more, which stimulates all of the other economic sectors.  These sectors function as a tax base, so the state’s investment pays itself back countless times over.  As a result, the economy grows and wealth is generated.  There is a problem, though–the wealth is not concentrated into the hands of the few.   It is those hands that have worked so hard to reverse the tide–and Janus is their most recent victory.

In part four, I will refute some of the most common objections to the existence of public sector unions.

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