Monday, February 21, 2011
UK: Battle between right and left in Wisconsin
PJ: Has the partisan divide in the US sunk so low for political parties to use workers as pawns in their quest for power?
Partisan conflict and fiscal prudence
THE Republican-sponsored Wisconsin bill that would reduce the legal powers of the state's government-employee unions has aroused mass demonstrations in Madison (see photo) and instigated a comic diaspora of Democratic state senators to the glamourous Best Western Clocktower Resort in Rockford, Illinois (it has a waterslide!). Meanshile, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones finds upon close examination that the legislation contains within it a dash of cynical partisan politics! The bill would, among other things, require government workers to make contributions to their pension and health plans, except for cops and firefighters. Mr Drum inquires:
Now why would this be? Is it because collective bargaining is somehow less of a problem for public safety employees than for teachers? Because strikes by cops are less hazardous than strikes by teachers? Because public safety employees tend not to be hard bargainers anyway? Because public safety employees are poorly paid?
Or is it because teachers tend to vote pretty reliably for Democrats and public safety employees don't? Bingo.
The converse of this observation is that Democratic politicians, increasingly dependent on money and votes from SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, and so forth, fear they will reap the electoral whirlwind if they stand up to the unions—even when union-negotiated benefits packages threaten to wreak fiscal devastation upon state and municipal budgets. The partial transformation of the Democratic Party into the political arm of the public-sector unions threatens to remake the party into something like the organised antagonist of all those who pay taxes or benefit from taxpayer-financed government programmes, but who do not themselves work for the government—an anti-everyone-but-public-employees union. That it is to the GOP's undeniable electoral advantage to weaken the Democrats' main source of money and voter mobilisation turns the Republican Party into something like the everyone-but-public-employees union, whether they care about everyone but public employees or not. It doesn't matter if Republicans give a damn about subsidised school lunches for poor kids. When it comes down to zero-sum distributive conflict over a shrinking pool of money, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Anyway, the fact that Wisconsin Republicans have carved out a loophole for right-leaning heroes in uniform simply illustrates the mechanism. Partisan advantage has motivated GOP lawmakers to enlarge the set of fiscal options for states and municipalities—to clear some badly-needed room to manoeuvre—by undoing the attempts of public-sector unions to lock down claims on large and often unsustainably increasing shares of future budgets.
Of course, Democrat-controlled cities and states also need this sort of room to move if they are to effectively look after their party's less powerful constituencies, or to govern in the common interest. The problem is that, for many Democrats, it's just too politically risky to fight for it. Nevertheless, some bravely public-spirited Democrats are throwing down. In New York, Andrew Cuomo has locked horns with the state's public-sector unions. Yesterday, Schumpeter pointed us to a fascinating Josh Barro piece on Rahm Emmanuel's battle with Chicago's public-sector unions in his campaign for the mayor's office. I found this bit especially illuminating:
Emanuel [who has no public-sector union support] does have support from some private-sector unions, including the Teamsters and the Plumbers', Bricklayers', and Ironworkers' locals. This alignment is similar to that in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has clashed with public worker unions as he seeks to close a large budget gap without raising taxes. The Committee to Save New York, a coalition organized to defend the governor's budget agenda from union criticism, counts among its members various figures from New York's banking and real estate industries—and the president of New York City's Building Trades' Council. As in New York, private sector unions in Chicago understand that a sustainable city budget helps to create jobs in construction and other private industries.
Lots of folks on the left are trying to characterise the showdown in Madison as a referendum on the future of unions generally. But private- and public-sector unions really are different creatures. And it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests aren't necessarily aligned. A cash-strapped state that can't afford to, say, maintain or improve its physical infrastructure obviously can't afford to contract with private-sector union crews to do the work.