I’ve realized following the drama in Wisconsin that I have spent very little time thinking about the issue of unionization in general. I was born two years after President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and sparked a national debate on public sector unions, and the debate on EFCA never got off the ground when Democrats and the Obama administration basically tabled the issue without even pretending to want to pick a public fight. So I feel like people of a certain age have not been exposed to a robust national debate on the simple question of the pros and cons of both private and public sector unionization.
Because of this, I’m disappointed in progressive bloggers’ reluctance or unwillingness to discuss the stakes in Wisconsin with regards to the value of unions in and of themselves. Many have criticized Gov. Walker’s actions without explicitly making the case that public sector unionization is a good thing, which could be a result of cynical partisan politics. My hunch, though, is that center-left types are skeptical of public sector unions but think there’s something much more important at play; to wit, middle class interests have been so compromised that it’s appropriate to defend even inefficient policies that help the middle class. But if this is the case, the argument should be framed in those terms, as I think a side-step here does real harm to the debate.
Josh Marshall points out that since unions that are relatively more favorable to Republican candidates are exempted from Gov. Walker’s proposal, “It strains credulity to see this as anything but a political effort to destroy organizations that are critical foot soldiers for Democratic candidates at election time.” That certainly may be the case, but ignoring the clear power play, what’s Josh’s opinion of Walker’s proposal on the merits? Similarly, Paul Krugman argues that “You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I think one of contemporary conservatism’s biggest failings is its unwillingness to mitigate record income inequality (or even admit that it’s a problem). But does Krugman love unions? Does he think their policy positions are right? You won’t find an answer in his column. Matt Yglesias has written a couple good posts on the subject, including one titled “Labor Unions and Me,” but I genuinely don’t know how he would answer this question: ignoring the valuable meta-role unions play as defenders of the middle class in an economic environment where the middle class desperately needs defending, if we were creating a state government from scratch in a vaccum, is it better for public sector workers to be unionized or not?