Today is the Wisconsin recall election. If Republican governor Scott Walker prevails, so will conservatives, since his reforms of collective bargaining will survive, and he shall have curbed some of the worst excesses of the American labor movement.
There have been, and still are, public benefits to unionism. Trade unions remain a way for master craftsmen to protect their skills from cut-rate competitors, and offer customers a credible guarantee that the job will be top-notch. Industrial unions are now an outdated mode of employer-employee relations, but they were once a way for the working class to renegotiate their share of the national surplus during the industrial revolution, and they contributed to the middle class that emerged in the postwar era.
But what about government unions? It’s hard to argue that there was ever a compelling social need for them, and indeed up through the late 1950s there was no substantial push to unionize government workers, even by the earlier giants of the labor movement, men like Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and Philip Murray. In fact, as I argue in Spoiled Rotten, my new history of the Democratic party, one reason government workers are unionized today has to do with the decline of the craft and industrial unions, starting in the late 1950s. This put pressure on the Democratic party to find new loyalists to replace the old ones in the steel, auto, coal, and rubber industries.
They are partially responsible for the Democratic party’s lurch to the left. The old craft and industrial unions had a stake in the private economy: the faster it grew, the more workers were needed, and the more money everybody made. However, that is not how public sector unionism works at all. In fact, the interest of the public sector unions is not in growing the private economy, but of socializing an ever-greater portion of the national wealth.
And these unions have a decidedly clientelistic relationship with the Democratic party. They provide money for the campaign in exchange for special benefits after the election. In 2010, public sector unions (notably AFSCME, the AFT, and the NEA) chipped in $28 million to the Democratic effort; that's almost a third of the total money Democrats received from organized labor, and it does not count the value of their formal endorsements of Democratic candidates or their GOTV volunteers. The government unions are not quite in the same league politically as the SEIU, but they are important players nonetheless. And that is money well spent. Today's Democrats protect and expand government unions whenever and wherever they are able – by fighting efforts to trim collective bargaining rights, by opposing school choice, by resisting efforts to make the government function more efficiently, etc.
So, if it seems to you that, during your lifetime, the Democratic party has gone from being the party that utilized government to help the little guy, to just being the party of government, the rising influence of government unions is a big piece of the puzzle.
Importantly, there is little to be done about this on the federal level. The National Labor Relations Act does not guarantee collective bargaining rights to federal workers, whose unions have only limited powers. The real action is in the states, and thus the importance of today’s recall election.
Conservatives should look at Wisconsin as the first in a series of steps along a path of responsible labor reforms. The model should be the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in the 20th century. After World War II, organized labor acted quite irresponsibly, threatening mass strikes as the economy was going through the difficult transition from wartime to peacetime. As was so often the case with our 33rd president, Harry Truman talked a good game about making the unions behave, but he never actually followed through, and the country elected a Republican majority in the 1946 midterms. Though they would not be in power for long, the conservatives who dominated the 80th Congress passed over Truman's veto the Taft-Hartley Act, which provided states with the power to institute right-to-work laws, and greatly curtailed the ability of unions to disrupt the national economy.
Government unions are acting in a similarly irresponsible manner today. The massive public financing crisis in the states demands the very sorts of reforms that Governor Walker has implemented; yet he has been opposed by the government unions and their allies in the Democratic party at every turn. The only appropriate solution is something akin to what the GOP pushed through in the 1940s; in effect conservatives must say to the unions that if they cannot behave responsibly with the powers they have, then those powers will be curbed.
In many respects, labor unions are an artifact of an age long gone, and they remain in existence today due in part to the political needs of the Democratic party. Republicans are thus bound to have a tense relationship with them, but the GOP is obliged to step in – as Governor Walker has – when the unions are behaving in a way that runs contrary to the public interest. Here’s hoping that Walker is vindicated today, and that Republican leaders around the country have the courage to follow his lead.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.