May 4, 2010

"Do you have to love labor unions to be a good Democrat?"

Marc Comtois

Blogger Mickey Kaus is running for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary in California and thinks its time for the Democratic Party to re-think their relationship with unions (h/t).

It's time for Democrats, even liberal Democrats, to start looking at unions and unionism with deep skepticism.

I don't mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they've been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don't need a union so much, do you?

I agree. Unions fought the good fight "back in the day" and served as a much-needed check on corporations as they gained hard-won victories for workers. Government regulations and oversights were instituted. But once those battles were won, union leaders expanded the definition of "union rights" and warned of bogey men so that they can keep the membership always fighting for something more and keep themselves in power. But this has led to problems for private sector unions whose demands resulted in a sort of workplace stasis.
At the same time unions were winning government protections, changes in the economy were making mainstream unionism itself an impediment to growth. We are no longer living in a World War II world in which big, slow-moving bureaucratic organizations are the engines of prosperity. Only fast-moving, flexible organizations prosper today. Technology changes too rapidly. Firms have to be able to make snap decisions: expand here, contract there, change the way they work every day. That was the lesson of Japan--how 1,000 little improvements in productivity can add up to a big advantage.
As Kaus explains, too many unions are stuck in the 1950's and their solution is to keep doing what worked in the '50's. Yet, even though times have changed, more strident unionism is "the official Democratic Party dogma. No dissent allowed." As market forces have shrunk private sector unions, government unions continue to grow, funded by tax dollars appropriated by the Democrats they've hired. In particular, Kaus is no fan of the modern teacher unions:
When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it's been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.
He also knows that some Democrats recognize the problem:
"The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits...while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide...but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact."

That quote is from Willie Brown, a Democratic hero, explaining why the state may go the way of Vallejo and General Motors. Easy for him to say; he's retired. But you won't catch any Democrats who are running for office saying it. They're too dependent on organized labor's money and muscle.

I doubt that Kaus will win his bid for Senate and I also doubt that there will be a serious rift between the union leaders and Democrat politicians any time soon. After all, the system works for them.

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"Do you have to love labor unions to be a good Democrat?"

Or, Do you have to hate unions to be a good Republican?

Posted by: michael at May 4, 2010 9:29 AM

Michael, I get the cute rhetorical twist there, but, as Kaus shows (and Willie Brown of all people!) criticism of unions doesn't equal hate, Republican or otherwise.

Posted by: Marc at May 4, 2010 10:49 AM

I know, but "Do republicans have to "criticize" unions" didn't sound nearly as good.

I have been talking with people in my union, mostly falling on deaf ears, about not automatically dismissing Republican candidates and conservative philosophy concerning the firefighters union. I never liked being lumped in with the liberal agenda.

Posted by: at May 4, 2010 12:13 PM

And Michael's example is exactly why I think that political parties have outlived their usefulness. People just grab on to one label and ignore everything else. Even if the person with the wrong label actually has views that match their own.

Why are people so lazy that they can't even learn about each of the candidates in a race? It is for that reason that I would love to get rid of all partisan races. You vote for the people and their ideas, not the parties. But then again, I guess Mike is giving us yet another reason to label the union heads as "lazy".

Posted by: Patrick at May 4, 2010 12:25 PM

I won't vote for anyone who has anything to do with public unions, especially for school committee or local or state because it is obvious that their purpose is to protect themselves or fellow unionists and not at all for the taxpayer. And I'm not wrong about this

Posted by: just asking at May 4, 2010 2:11 PM

Michael-agreed.I remember when Jimmy Carter gave federal employees the biggest raise ever prior to his 1980 re-election bid.I don't know any of my fellow INS agents who voted for him.I don't think my vote is for sale.
I will say this-I have no use for the SEIU and will never vote for someone they support.They are just un-American.

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 4, 2010 3:40 PM

" Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. "

That's one of the comments of the person Marc uses.

Ask the miners of West Virginia and Kentucky and their families if they believe that they and theirs are not risking their lives and health. Ask the fishermen in Louisiana about how British Petroleum has put them out of work and agreed to hire them for cleanup jobs only if they sign waivers stating they won't sue for damages. What did you say about the last century?
Eleven oil drilling rig workers are presumed dead following the explosion and fire in the Gulf of Mexico.

Posted by: Phil at May 4, 2010 9:05 PM

Never fear. This person will never lump you in with any liberal agenda.

See Phil's comment above if you need to be reminded of why we need unions. If you were working rescue in West Virginia or Kentucky you'd be so busy rescuing non-union miners that you'd have little time to peddle your beliefs in your blog.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at May 4, 2010 10:58 PM

When politicians speak "for the unions", let's face it, they are speaking to government workers. I think that is preaching to the choir. While all government workers are unionized, only about 12% of the private sector is.
All the talk of helping manufacturing workers really is "1950's"

Posted by: Warrington Faust at May 4, 2010 10:59 PM

OTL, you are barking up the wrong tree. I'm as pro-union as they come. I just can't stand the absurd party line when it comes to most things. A republican doesn't have to be anti union. A democrat need not be pro union. Common sense should apply to the issues.

Posted by: michael at May 4, 2010 11:11 PM

It would be easier to believe that you are a pro union person if you occasionally submitted a few pro union thoughts to this blog. It seems to me that you are more interested in tooting your own horn than benefiting the collective organization you profess to love.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at May 5, 2010 11:58 AM

Posted by: michael at May 5, 2010 12:51 PM

OTL, I could continue tooting my own horn but then people would realize just how much I enjoy doing so.

Posted by: michael at May 5, 2010 2:31 PM

Your secret's already out. You are a blowhard self promoter.

I have no idea why you submit a thread from 2007 which toots your own horn, then toot your own horn again and explain the obvious, that you like to toot your own horn. Makes you sound monomaniacal.

Maybe you are so monomaniacal that you want to assure everyone that you are a monomaniac? Who knows; who cares?

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at May 5, 2010 7:40 PM

When it comes to unions that represent public safety employees (esp. FF's, EMS & Police), whether you have recognized it or not, the biggest fight we continue to fight is "staffing".

Cities and towns continue to push the "downsizing" of their police and fire departments. We (the unions) are the only thing that stands in their way of doing so. Again, whether you want to believe it or not, less policemen or firemen on the street equates to reduced public safety.

Anyone who doesn't recognize that the municipalities would cut these departments to the bone if they were not prevented from doing so by union contracts is fooling themselves.

Sadly, these contracts will not prevent these unconscionable cuts for much longer. Even the courts are rendering "legal contracts" as non-binding. So much for the "his word and his handshake" are all I need to seal the deal days we all seem to long for....

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 6, 2010 11:09 AM

OTL, It's never been a secret,I've always been a blowhard self-promoter.

You asked for pro-union thoughts be submitted to this blog. I delivered two. I could have dug up literally hundreds more. Then I could have gone to the Providence Journal and dug up editorials and letters to the editor by the dozen to support my pro-union stance.

Because I question some of the beliefs and practices of organized labor as it is today must be threatening to you, I have no idea why.

The personal attacks are a mystery. What did I ever say or do to you?

Hello Tom, hope all is well.

Posted by: michael at May 6, 2010 11:26 AM

It's not what you say to me. It's what you say.

Nothing personal, just business.

Anti-union remarks just feed the beasts writing this blog. Unions aren't perfect. None of us are, not individually, not collectively.

Work inside the union to affect positive change, but stop throwing red meat to the retrogressives.

Look at these comments from contributors to this blog:
1. I won't vote for anyone who has anything to do with public unions.

2. I will say this-I have no use for the SEIU and will never vote for someone they support. They are just un-American.

These people don't really need you to take a shot at the unions. They do it quite well themselves.

Do you have aspirations of running for elected office, and hope to pull in some retrogressive votes? If that's what you are doing, and I hope you aren't, then you'd be just another "Me too" politician.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at May 7, 2010 1:21 AM

Maybe I'm mistaken, but it is my belief that my commentary here has improved perception of union members. We are not all sheep being led by corrupt "union bosses." The dialog in the union halls is contentious at times, we hardly agree an anything, but in the end agree to do what is best for all of the members.

We are not unreasonable thugs throwing one-liners at political right leaning blogs. I have my own opinions, some more progressive than others, some more conservative. The union has taught me that as an individual I am pretty much powerless when dealing with the enormous machine that our government has become. As a group we have a chance.

I've always been honest in my opinions here. I'm not a union spokesperson, nor do I have any interest in running for office of any kind.

Posted by: michael at May 7, 2010 9:06 AM

I need to point out two things regarding Mike's posts on this blog.

The first is that he's a much more subtle communicator regarding firefighter and union issues than I. As such he is probably more influentual in changing some minds here (the enemy camp - lol). His posts are more like the statements that go on at the closing stages of successful negotiations...a give and take, tying up loose ends.

My posts, on the other hand, are like the statements and demands made at the very beginning of negotiations. They state our positions and concerns without regard for the enemy's issues...I figure they know their own concerns and don't need me to point them I just push my own issues.

The second thing I need to point out is that there is much discussion in our union hall both pro and con on just about every issue we discuss. On some issues we are almost unanymous and on some we're split more equally. The point of a union is to stick together in a united front. Therefore we "seem" like we all follow blindly...but it's anything but that way. Our leaders sometimes influence the body and sometimes the body influences our leaders. Either way, we'll stand united.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at May 8, 2010 12:37 PM
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