Which Sides Are You On?

Americans are ambivalent about public unions.  In early industrial capitalism, all the power lay with employers. There were always more people seeking work than there were jobs, while state and local governments were there for the buying. As a result, wages were low, hours were long, working conditions were abominable, and job security was non-existent. Only unions offered any chance at improving the lives of workers. Union-organizing, however, proved to be hard and dangerous work. Employers resisted with every means possible and often did not stop at the edge of legality. Moreover, the very idea of a union clashed with the individualistic values upheld by most Americans. Only with the Depression and the New Deal did mass unionization sweep over heavy industry.

Public-sector unionization did not amount to much for a very long time. For one thing, the large American state is a fairly recent creation. More importantly, most people distinguished between public and private unions. On the one hand, public employment seemed far more secure than did private sector work and often seemed subject to various kinds of patronage. On the other hand, government provided services for which there was no alternative. While breaking a police strike in Boston, Calvin Coolidge declared that “there is no right to strike against the public safety.” Most people agreed with the sentiment for half a century. However, in 1962 President John Kennedy issued an executive order allowing many federal employees to unionize. The movement then spread to the state and local levels. Membership in public-sector unions now outnumbers membership in private-sector unions. Because the courts have upheld the right of unions to collect dues from all members, unions have deep pockets for political action.[1]

Amity Shlaes argues that there is an important emotional component to public attitudes toward unions. People have a positive view of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s New Deal promoted mass unionization. Most people wouldn’t run into a burning building, or pull over a car on a dark night, or try to wrangle a room full of 14 year-olds, so they admire those who will do those things. So, public sector unions are approved on an emotional level. [2]

While the national media are interested in labor’s role in national politics, the unions actually focus most of their efforts lower down the food-chain. Local government elections often run in the “off” years between national elections. Turn-out is about a third lower in the local elections. When unions can turn out voters and supply campaign funds, they can have a disproportionate impact on the governments with which unions will then negotiate contracts.

Since they depend on union support in elections, Democrats tend to fold up under pressure. Since Americans don’t want to pay more taxes, local governments find their way out of the immediate dilemma by granting generous pension benefits that someone else in the years ahead with have to figure out how to pay. We can see the consequences in the balance sheets of some American cities. Dallas, a non-union town if ever I saw one, pays $74 a ton for garbage collection and disposal. Chicago, the union-city par excellence now that Detroit has cratered, pays $231 a ton. Speaking of Detroit, in 2013 the city sank under more than $18 billion in long-term debt. Half of that debt was for pension and health-care benefits for employees that could not be supported from the shrinking tax base.

Exasperated Republicans just want to cut government services to get rid of the burden of the unions. It’s difficult to see this as anything except a different kind of “strike against the public safety.” As with many things in contemporary America, some fresh thinking is needed.

[1] Daniel DiSalvo, Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences (2015).

[2] Her own sentimental attachments lie elsewhere. See: Amity Schlaes, Coolidge (2013).

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