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It’s about Power, Stupid!

Paul Krugman has some interesting comments about what’s going on in Wisconsin:

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

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. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.

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14 Comments

  1. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I was with Krugman until the last paragragh when he blamed teh superrich for governments fiscal irreponsibility.

    I think unions in business are a good thing, for the reasons that Krugman stated. They are the equalizers between big business and the worker. However, I am not in favor of them for government workes. Our government is not exactly big business. You can vote your leaders out of government where you can’t do that with business. Unions have no place in government, and I work for the government.

    I understand everyone wants representation, but we have the vote for that. When you are lobbying for increased pay/benefits from your government, your actually asking your fellow citizens to contribute more to your income/benefits. Civil service used to be entered into out of a desire to serve and knowing you would be trading some earnings for stability. Frankly, the taxpayers just can’t afford it. Unions were created to counter big business, not to counter big government. We can vote big governemt out. If the state union folks want to put it to the test, put it up for referendum. Let the people speak.

    Monday, February 21, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Dan wrote:

    Whatever you think about the pros and cons of Unions, remember that Unions are fundamentally a free market solution.

    Restricting Unions is meddling with the free market. Of course ‘free’ should be in inverted commas, and no-one said meddling is necessarily bad…

    But just so we’re clear. :)

    Monday, February 21, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    PatriotSgt,

    In most professions, I might like to hire an agent to represent me. For instance in contract negotiations. If I work for the government, should I not be able to do the same?

    Monday, February 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  4. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Dan – Normally I would say I agree, and again to make sure I am clear unions in the free market business arena are good. IMO the government is not a full particiapant in the free market since it earns almost no money, except in fees and fines. If you have no product you don’t really participate in the market.
    Not all government employees are at liberty to participate in unions, so to be fair IMO it should be all or none. Can you imagine the military as a union, federal law enforcement, and what the implications of that could be? If the governmnt was a “for profit” entity then yes unions should be allowed as the workers deserve to profit when the business profits from their labor.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink
  5. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Your argument is not coherent because you are making a leap from civil servant to government employee. Your view of a government employee is far too simplistic.

    An average sized company needs a large staff of computer techs for maintenance. They are not involved in the company itself, they simply keep the data centers and endpoints running. A computer tech at a bank is not really different than a computer tech at an accounting firm, or one at a manufacturing plant. This is why, were you to apply for a tech support position, they are not generally interested in what the company you worked for in the past did. They are interested in what you can do.

    Similarly, the government also needs computer techs to keep things running. Are you asserting that those computer techs are civil servants? That they will gladly take a hit in pay just for the sheer thrill of knowing that the network cables they are plugging in are carrying government data?

    If so, you are sorely mistaken. Drastically cutting the pay of those workers will simply (and quickly) cause them to move on to greener pastures. Computer techs are just one example of this.

    Trying to draw lines in the sand of for-profit and non-profit is equally silly. Non-profit simply means that at the end of the year, you don’t retain or distribute any profits. This is always accomplished by first paying company expenses (i.e. paying your employees), and then returning any remainder to some other entity. There are enormous non-profit organizations out there who run through millions of dollars every year. Similar to government, they require people to keep the organization running. Do you think they pay those people in peanuts? Of course not. Again, virtually nobody is going to work tireless hours for minimum wage when they can go work for a private company and earn a lot more pay for a lot less work/stress.

    If you don’t pay your workers what they are worth, your workers will move on. Governments feel confident in bullying certain sets of employees because they believe they are stuck working in the public sector. Hence the need for public sector unions.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  6. Iron Knee wrote:

    I can see both sides of this issue. PatriotSgt makes a good point that some jobs (like the military) are not really good for being unionized. But he loses me when he said it has to be all or nothing — if some public sector jobs should not be unionized, then none should be. That’s just ideological nonsense.

    For example, teachers. I know a few teachers, and most of them are doing the job more for love than for the money, and as a result they are extremely susceptible to being screwed over by school administrators. Often the union is the only thing protecting them, and the students, from corrupt administrators. I would not like to see that go away.

    My general feeling is that unions are evil, but they are a necessary evil. But like everything, the bigger they get, the more evil they get. Assuming we can find a way to limit the power of huge corporations (you know, like those ones that are “too big to fail”), then I would want to see similar restrictions placed on unions. Including making them legally distinct from real persons.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  7. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    I think the WI situation clearly defines the need for unions. The education statistics there are phenomenal. Yet they want to pay the teachers less and fire them if they don’t like it…..??? I can’t even wrap my head around it.

    I don’t know anything about the military that makes it a poor candidate for unionizing. The only thing that comes to mind is striking, but there are laws in place to prevent strikes for critical positions.

    I do understand about the evil aspect and have heard stories from various sources about unions basically protecting lazy or non-working people. But I still side with Mr. Krugman. The power brokers are very uncomfortable with the working class having the ability to push back. And understandably so! It is really inconvenient having to justify tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations…like the ones Walker enacted just before the union hub-bub.

    Back to the article, I appreciated the Animal Farm reference. I just read Animal Farm and 1984. I just read both not too long ago and it struck me oddly that most people I see quoting/referencing it are conservatives, yet most of the behavior in the book seems out of the Republican playbook. Funny stuff.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  8. atwork wrote:

    Personally I could see how the military could benefit from some unions. Maybe then you wouldn’t see troops inadequately equipped before being placed in harms way.

    I don’t see how government employees/civil servants should be singled out for abuse. 10:32 said it all better than I could. Seriously, who would work for government (or anyone) under those conditions that PSG recommends? Sounds like indentured servitude.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  9. PatriotSGT wrote:

    1032 – you made my point exactly. “Drastically cutting the pay of those workers will simply (and quickly) cause them to move on to greener pastures. Computer techs are just one example of this”

    The government is mandated to provide education, yes? So if they cannot find teachers willing to work for the wage offered, what happens? They must raise the wage.

    Now to counter the manipulative influence of the administration, we should have elected school boards and administrators. If they don’t do their job, off with their heads. :)

    IMO i still believe gov workers should not be part of unions. There is no profit or free market the gov participates in, so you are not taking money from the filthy rich, your taking it from yourselves.

    Bottom line, in ten years with Obama’s projected national debt of 23+ trillion, and 1/2 or more states bankrupt, we won’t hve to worry about payin any benefits. No one will get any pension, SS or healthcare for that matter so it really doesn’t matter. Learn to speak Chinese.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  10. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Patriot: “IMO i still believe gov workers should not be part of unions. There is no profit or free market the gov participates in, so you are not taking money from the filthy rich, your taking it from yourselves.”

    Even if your point was valid, it is a non-sequitur because your latter justification has no relation to the unions you speak of. The existence or lack thereof of public sector unions doesn’t change where the government gets the money it uses to pay the employees it requires to operate.

    Perhaps you mean to be arguing that government employees should never receive raises. An equally silly argument in my opinion, but at least one that jives with your stated justification.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink
  11. PatriotSGT wrote:

    1032 – I’m not sure how you understood me to mean what you said in your 2nd sentence, but I didn’t intend to if I did as you are exactly right. The existence or not of unions has no bearing on where the govt gets its money. What I’m (rather poorly I suppose) trying to say is let government jobs rely on supply and demand. If they need more of a paticular type of worker and those workers are in short supply it will drive up the salary for those eligible. We don’t need unions to hold our gov’t hostage. If it’s a policy, safety or other issue we have many, many agencies to handle all manner of grievances.
    Thanks for being patient 1032, You always make me think through my arguments, although I may not always change my opinion I appreciate our discourse.

    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  12. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Again I feel you are painting far too simplistic of a picture. Jobs (and most everything else) don’t operate on simple supply and demand. Were you to become a highly specialized and highly sought after widget sculptor for $250,000 a year, and suddenly tons of people started becoming widget sculptors, supply and demand would dictate 2 things. That not only the salary for newly hired widget sculptors was reduced, but that your pay at the company would be reduced as well. This isn’t actually what happens in the public or private sector.

    Extrapolating your point out further about supply and demand, it would seem that we have never needed any unions. Nor have we needed any minimum wage laws. Or any other labor laws, really.

    To me this is the same old invisible-hand-of-the-free-market in spiffy new duds.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink
  13. Effisland wrote:

    “Extrapolating your point out further about supply and demand, it would seem that we have never needed any unions. Nor have we needed any minimum wage laws. Or any other labor laws, really” …

    In addition, the thought that labour, by simply by working for government, does not need protection, is repugnant. Some have the most difficult challenging jobs and run many risks. This should be recognized by the employer.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink
  14. PatriotSGT wrote:

    1032 and Effisland -you both make good points. On private labor I am all for unions, when they serve their constituents (often they don’t). I agree that many gov’t jobs especially local govs with their police and firemen are very high risk, they also are not allowed to strike like apparantly teachers are allowed to do in Wis. In the federal workforce many dangerous occupations are not allowed to unionize with the military and federal law enforcement as 2 prime examples.
    I don’t agree with how Walker is approaching/strong arming this issue, but that does not change my opinion that unions should not be part of the government workforce. Vote out those that don’t take care of you, make it a campaign issue like supporters of the military do. Would you want to be the local politician campaigning on lowering teacher wages. Hold your politicians accountable, with the vote.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink