Friday, February 25, 2011

Whipping Unions

A common argument you hear in defense of the Republican assault on public sector unions (aided in no small part by the liberal embrace of union-busting teacher reform), is that the public sector shouldn't be allowed to have union representation at all - that they necessarily have a conflict of interest with government. Just because they are a constituency paid by government, they are not guaranteed any other special privileges than private constituencies.  Jonathan Zazloff asks why public unions are considered corrupt, but not limitless spending by private corporations:
Public-sector collective bargaining is unhealthy and distorts democracy because it enables workers to influence the government which negotiates with them; but
Unlimited and secret corporate political campaign contributions are necessary to democracy because they enable corporations to influence the government which regulates them.

It is a slippery slope fallacy to assume that because unions can argue for better pay, and better pay can buy more representation, thereby acquiring better pay, a corrupt feedback loop is created. The obvious problem with this is that there are numerous checks on union power, not the least of which is the fact that government officials are democratically elected. This argument generally rests on the notion that political speech is necessarily corrupt.

Yet, this applies just as well to private political speech. Enter Zasloff’s suggestion that private corporate speech has just been given an enormous boost, generally by the same folks who are now decrying unions.

Another argument on the right – one I heard just today – is that unions were responsible for the destruction of private sector jobs, and now they’re doing the same to the public sector. This is absurd in numerous ways. For starters, even assuming that unions were responsible for job losses due to pay demands, workers would never have been able to compete with third world labor.

Yet what happened to the productivity gains when those jobs were done more cheaply? How has that “trickled down”? And if there had been no unions, and if workers somehow would have been able to compete, where would the productivity gains have gone then?

Yet the public sector can’t outsource its services. So how would unions be able to destroy that sector? Are public workers making too much? I think that’s pretty subjective. I certainly don’t feel like they are getting anything more than they deserve. Are other workers getting what they deserve Probably not. But whose fault is that? By cutting taxes on the rich, are those “productivity gains” going to trickle down too, just like they did in the private sector?

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