Ezra Klein describes unions as he wishes they were-defenders of voiceless workers, who just want a fair shake from indifferent, greedy company bosses-but seems reluctantly aware that the reality is very different. As a result, his defense of unions is often contradictory, and certainly not related to the current debate about the role of public unions.
In Newsweek today, he writes:
[Unions] give workers a voice within-and, when necessary, leverage against-their employer. That means higher wages, but it also means that workers can go to their managers with safety concerns or ideas to improve efficiency and know that they’ll not only get a hearing, they’ll be protected from possible reprisals. Second, unions are a powerful, sophisticated player concerned with more than just the next quarter’s profit reports-what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “countervailing power” in an economy dominated by large corporations. They participate in shareholder meetings, where they’re focused on things like job quality and resisting outsourcing. They push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers or, increasingly, for the environment. In an economy with a tendency toward bigness-where big producers are negotiating with big retailers and big distributors-workers need a big advocate of their own.
Can he seriously think that unions exist to protect workers who might be punished for suggesting “ideas to improve efficiency”? Or that unions “push back on business models that they don’t consider sustainable for their workers” compared to short-sighted managers and shareholders, who are just interested in the next quarterly report? How can he square this characterization with examples like General Motors, a company driven into the ground in part by unions fixated on perpetuating a business and employee compensation model that was certain to doom the company. How does this possibly apply to teachers unions who fight against reforms that would reward performance and allow principals to remove dismal teachers?
He also writes that unions “bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way,” pretending that the unions themselves-particularly the public sector unions-aren’t the most monied of all interests. As Mark McKinnon explains also in Newsweek:
Big money from public unions, collected through mandatory dues, and funded entirely by the taxpayer, is then redistributed as campaign cash to help elect the politicians who are then supposed to represent taxpayers in negotiations with those same unions. In effect, the unions sit on both sides of the table and collectively bargain to raise taxes while the voters’ voice is silenced.
Mr. Klien seems to know that his defense of unions would be embarrassingly out of touch with the reality of unions, so adds:
Of course, organized labor is not always at its best. It can be myopic and hidebound. It can fight for rigid work rules that make workplaces less efficient and workers less happy. It can argue for pension and health-care benefits that, in the long run, are simply not sustainable.
These criticisms are true for all unions, but what this discussion misses is the peculiarities of public sector unions, which make the picture for unions so much worse and his defense of unions totally irrelevant.
Private sector unions do have a legitimate counterpart to negotiate with, bosses whose interests are in keeping labor costs as low as possible while attracting the necessary skilled workforce. That’s not so with public sector unions, who are often in cahoots with the other negotiator, who is happy to give away taxpayer money in return for campaign contributions.
Private sector unions also know that they can only push so far-if labor costs go up too high then their employer won’t be able to compete and may go out of business. Public sector unions-at least until recently-have had no such bounds. Governments face no competition and there has been the perception that a little more could always be squeezed out of taxpayers.
Klein skirts over the differences between public and private unions, because he has to. The American people increasingly understand that the bureaucrats sitting in cozy offices down in the state capitol aren’t miners or steel factory workers, and limiting public sector union’s power is critical to protecting taxpayers.