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Edward Ring

The Future of Unions in the Post-Scalia Era

“The ‘Scalia Dividend’ Is a Rare Opportunity for Unions.”
– Shaun Richman, In These Times, February 16, 2016

The implications of Antonin Scalia’s sudden and tragic death have already been painstakingly explored by anyone involved in union reform. There’s not much to add. But what members of the labor movement have to say about this new reality may be worth a look. And despite the title of the above-noted article by Shaun Richman, for the pro-labor publication In These Times, most pro-labor pundits are not optimistic about the future of the labor movement. Richman writes:

“Labor’s crisis predated Friedrichs and will live on after it. The ‘Right to Work’ agenda, and the gutting of public sector collective bargaining laws, will continue to be pressed at the state level. And if the general financial commitment and philosophical approach to new union organizing remains the same, union density will surely continue to decline.”

In the pro-labor publication Workday Minnesota, in a commentary entitled “Unions could still lose Friedrichs – even if we win,” Dave Kamper writes:

“The existential threat to unions isn’t going away. We remain as we have for years: one court decision, one bad national election, or one right-wing victory away from annihilation.”

In both of these articles, virtually no acknowledgement is made of the profound difference between private sector unions, which have been in decline for years, and public sector unions, which with only a few significant exceptions are stronger than ever. Private sector unions in the United States have been engaging in soul searching for a long time, trying to come up with ways to remain relevant in a nation where hard won and comprehensive laws already exist to protect workers. The decline in middle class wages in the United States has relatively little to do with the decline of labor activism, and everything to do with globalizationautomation, and financialization. Even if every worker in America belonged to a union, with all that power they still wouldn’t know exactly how to manage these mega-trends, because nobody does.

What America’s labor movement must primarily confront is not a right-wing attack machine intent on their demise, but their own failure to reinvent themselves to remain relevant in the 21st century. Here are some suggestions for those leaders of the labor movement who actually care about the American worker:

(1) Recognize that public sector unions aren’t unions in any legitimate sense of the word. Public unions exist because they automatically collect dues from government workers, who are paid via taxes earned by private businesses and individuals in a competitive market. Public unions exist through political coercion. They elect their own bosses. And they flourish when the power of government expands, regardless of whether or not that expansion is for desirable ends or is managed cost-effectively.

(2) Have the courage to stand up to the extreme environmentalist lobby, a special interest that has artificially raised the price of basic necessities – energy, water, homes, and transportation – to unaffordable levels. Understand that environmentalist inspired artificial scarcity creates asset bubbles, which enrich already wealthy special interests, but harm ordinary workers, who cannot, for example, afford to pay 50% of their net income on rent.

(3) Take a first step towards reforming America’s overbuilt financial sector by recognizing low interest rates as the reason people have borrowed more than they can ever hope to pay back, and the reason there is no place left for an ordinary saver to earn a respectable, risk-free return on investment. Understand that the biggest problem workers face isn’t high interest rates, it’s high prices, caused by artificially induced scarcity.

(4) Accept that right-to-work laws do not harm any union that is willing to be accountable to their members. If support for a union withers away, it is because the grievances that gave rise to that union have been satisfied. States that have implemented right-to-work laws still have effective unions. Accepting right-to-work as part of the regulatory environment unions operate in would make unions stronger, not weaker, because they would have to attract their members instead of coerce them.

(5) Become aware of what writer and researcher Joel Kotkin calls the “upstairs-downstairs coalition,” because to ignore it results in a naive and destructive policy agenda. Kotkin writes: “The modern Democratic Party fuses two dissimilar groups: the ‘upstairs’ well-educated gentry, with their urbanist and green politics, and the broader, but less-influential ‘downstairs’ working-class element, concerned about jobs, making more money and likely aspiring to own a home in the suburbs.” Kotkin believes this coalition, “papered over for years by focusing on social and racial issues,” is coming apart. Unions should pay attention. The upstairs-downstairs coalition’s policies harm everyone, except for the politically connected, wealthy elite.

(6) Make hard choices. For starters, you cannot have unrestricted immigration into a welfare state. If you want the government to offer a generous assortment of welfare and entitlements, then you have to restrict the flow of destitute individuals into the nation, since they will also become recipients and bankrupt the system. If, on the other hand, you wish to support an unrestricted flow of immigrants and refugees into the nation, then you have to scale back entitlements. You can’t have both.

The death of Antonin Scalia has put the issue of his replacement onto center stage for the duration of the 2016 election season. It will bring discussions of unions, since the unresolved Friedrichs case is so pivotal, back into the political dialog. But as even their own supporters acknowledge, the future of America’s unions has never been more uncertain. If they can abandon their partisan blinders and disassociate themselves from their public “union” allies – which are neither unions nor allies – they may yet play a vital role in these wondrous, turbulent times.

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Ed Ring is the President of the California Policy Center.

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