Collective bargaining and unions are necessary and beneficial to society, even for those who are not members of the society. It’s not because unions are always in the right or that the positions they espouse are always the best They aren’t. But then neither are the positions or policies of large corporations, or churches, or the military, or the either Republican or Democratic parties or administrations. Unions are needed for two reasons.
First, they provide an offset to concentrated power of very large employers. This is called countervailing power, an idea first put forth and made famous by John Kenneth Galbreath. Governments can be very, very large employers. As such, governments possess a disproportionate bargaining power against individuals employees. Unions balance the scale. It is interesting, that even with unions, government employees are lower-compensated than comparable private-sector employees.
The first reason is of interest to those employees who are represented by unions. But the larger society benefits too. Government listens to wealth. Supposedly government in a democracy is supposed to listen to the voters, the people. But when income and wealth inequality becomes too disparate and the nation or state too big, the wealthy can control the voting. They can do this by controlling and influencing media which controls and guides what the people know and think. The wealthy raise the bar on how much money it takes to campaign. Then only rich or the -willing-to-do-as-the-rich-say candidates get on the ballot. The result is oligarchy. Rule by the wealthy elite.
I’ll let two others explain in more detail. First, it’s Kevin Drum from Mother Jones:
Every single human institution or organization of any size has its bad points. Corporations certainly do. The military does. Organized religion does. Academia does. The media does. The financial industry sure as hell does. But with the exception of a few extremists here and there, nobody uses this as an excuse to suggest that these institutions are hopelessly corrupt and should cease existing. Rather, it’s used as fodder for regulatory proposals or as an argument that every right-thinking person should fight these institutions on some particular issue. Corporations should or shouldn’t be rewarded for outsourcing jobs. Academics do or don’t deserve more state funding. The financial industry should or shouldn’t be required to trade credit derivatives on public exchanges.
Unions are the most common big exception to this rule. Sure, conservatives will take whatever chance they can to rein them in, regulate them, make it nearly impossible for them to organize new workplaces. But they also routinely argue that labor unions simply shouldn’t exist. This is what’s happening in Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker isn’t satisfied with merely negotiating concessions from public sector unions. He wants to effectively ban collective bargaining and all but do away with public sector unions completely.
Nobody should buy this. Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they’re on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.
So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that’s what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It’s a free country.
But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven’t made that clear, I don’t know what will.
Next we’ve got Paul Krugman at the New York Times:
Tellingly, some workers — namely, those who tend to be Republican-leaning — are exempted from the ban; it’s as if Mr. Walker were flaunting the political nature of his actions.
Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there’s not much room for further pay squeezes.
So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.
In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.
Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.
You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.
And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.
There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.
So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.