Tuesday, June 5, 2012, will be remembered as the beginning of the long decline of the public-sector union. It will follow, and parallel, the shrinking of private-sector unions, now down to less than 7 percent of American workers. The abject failure of the unions to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) — the first such failure in U.S. history — marks the Icarus moment of government-union power. Wax wings melted, there’s nowhere to go but down.
It’s all over but for the gloating….
Without question, the role and relevance of unions in the American economy have been uncertain for some years now. During the 19th and 20th centuries, unions battled captains of industry for recognition of labor’s vital role in creating wealth for those same captains of industry. Battles were fought (sometimes literally), victories were won, and the result is the economic landscape we live in today. Health care coverage, retirement plans, vacation time, the 40-hour work week…all those (and many other things American take for granted today) were won by unions fighting for the best interests of their members.
Last week’s Wisconsin recall election seems at first glance to serve as proof that too many have forgotten the debt we owe to unions. An overwhelming financial advantage allowed supporters of Gov. Scott Walker to paint public employee unions as corrupt, inefficient drags on the modern economy those on the Right want to create. Democrats seemed strangely distant from the recall campaign, President Obama sat it out completely, and in the end the result seemed rather predictable. The Right’s overwhelming financial advantage allowed them to create a propaganda campaign that buried Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and his supporters in lies, half-truths, and disinformation.
So now we get the gloating, and it seems Charles Krauthammer is leading the parade to bury unions once and for all.
The unions’ defeat marks a historical inflection point. They set out to make an example of Walker. He succeeded in making an example of them as a classic case of reactionary liberalism. An institution founded to protect its members grew in size, wealth, power and arrogance, thanks to decades of symbiotic deals with bought politicians, to the point where it grossly overreached. A half-century later these unions were exercising essential control of everything from wages to work rules in the running of government — something that, in a system of republican governance, is properly the sovereign province of the citizenry.
Why did the unions lose? Because Norma Rae nostalgia is not enough, and it hardly applied to government workers living better than the average taxpayer who supports them….
Most important, however, because in the end reality prevails. As economist Herb Stein once put it: Something that can’t go on, won’t. These public-sector unions, acting, as FDR had feared, with an inherent conflict of interest regarding their own duties, were devouring the institution they were supposed to serve, rendering state government as economically unsustainable as the collapsing entitlement states of southern Europe.
In the end, reality is what it is, and Wisconsin voters willingly reaffirmed their support for a Governor committed to destroying unions. If you’re going to vote against your own best interests, you can’t claim to be surprised with those interests come under attack.
In the end, we get exactly the quality of leadership deserve….
Unions are not blameless, of course, and the labor movement needs to take a good, long at how to (or whether they even can) remain relevant in today’s political and economic climate. Because unions represent a cross-section of America, they too often reflect the shortcomings extant in our society- corruption, self-interest, and the inability or unwillingness to represent those they claim to stand for. These cracks in the armor have provided ammunition for those who want to destroy unions and thus restore the balance of power back to the 1%. Democrats and the labor movement have been unable to counter this narrative, and the results of that failure became painfully obvious in Wisconsin last week.
I’m neither an economist nor a labor historian, so it’s not for me to speculate if unions can remain relevant in the 21st century, which so far seems to be devolving to the state of labor-capital relations that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, American workers will continue to vote against their own best interests…and then complain when government and corporations do what they said they would and whittle away at the rights and benefits they’ve taken for granted for far too long.