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All Or Nothing

Scott Walker is widely expected to prevail in the recall election today. One lesson the left might take home is: don’t raise the stakes unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to win. Scott Walker’s scalp would be a substantial victory for the labor movement – but if he wins the recall fight Walker will have very clear mandate from the voters, a vote of confidence in the very reforms that prompted the recall in the first place.

But a better lesson might be: the best defense is a good offense.

The Great Recession and an aggressive push by Walker and other Republican governors have put the labor movement on the defensive, fighting a rear-guard action to protect public sector unions from having to make painful concessions, not only on benefits but in terms of the structural dynamics of labor-management relations. But this rear-guard action is unwinnable in isolation.

55% of all Wisconsinites that were members of unions last year were members of public sector unions (187,000 out of 339,000). Those numbers are dropping fast as a consequence of Walker’s signature legislation, but in the state of Wisconsin as it was when Walker became governor, “union” and “public sector union” were rapidly becoming synonymous. But with respect to public sector workers, the electorate stands in a place equivalent to shareholders and customers with respect to private businesses. And shareholders and customers are not generally favorably disposed to unionization.

There is an argument to be made – a powerful argument – that labor, as a whole, has gotten the shaft out of whatever prosperity has been achieved since the mid-1980s. Some blame the Federal Reserve’s policy of disinflation; some blame free trade; some blame immigration; some blame changes in the tax code; some say it’s the inevitable negative bi-product of the generally very positive economic rise of China and East Asia more generally. Without going into all those possibilities, though, if you believe a revival of unions could play an important role in redressing this situation then public sector unions not only aren’t a cornerstone on which you could build. Focusing on their fights may actually retard progress.

The reason is clear if you compare American unions with unions in countries with very high rates of unionization but nonetheless successful economies, such as in northern Europe. In those countries, there is a much less adversarial culture of labor-management relations. Labor, in effect, has a permanent seat at the management table. Undoubtedly, management would prefer to have a freer hand. But the very fact that this situation obtains across the economy means that it is less threatening to any individual company. No company needs to worry about being wrecked by its union, because it doesn’t have a non-union competitor ready to eat its lunch, and the unions have rational stake in the success of the enterprise. As well, the public provision of a variety of benefits make it less-likely that a union would start catering primarily to its own retired workers at the expense of new entrants to the workforce.

None of that is true in the United States – and none of it could be true with respect to public sector unions. Public sector unions cannot have a rational stake in the profitability of their enterprise – because they are not working for profit-making entities. And the smaller baseline welfare state makes the benefits negotiated by unions much more valuable.

Public-sector unions were the derriere guard on the way up, as unionization was expanding in the United States. The teachers got a powerful union well after the auto workers did. And they have been in the derriere guard on the way down, their membership staying strong long after the private sector de-unionized. They are not going to be in the avant guard of any effort to reconceive the private sector union for the contemporary economic landscape. And defending public-sector unions, in the absence of an effective strategy for expanding private-sector unionization, is like defending Medicare recipients in the absence of an effective strategy for achieving universal health coverage – except that Medicare recipients are a much bigger slice of the electorate than public-sector union members.

The only way to make real progress on changing the social contract is to get everybody into the pool together with respect to those risks you want to see pooled. That means getting the uninsured into the health insurance pool, by government mandate if necessary – but it also means weaning private employees off employer-provided insurance, and getting Medicare recipients on the same footing as well. That’s why I’ve long argued that Obamacare and the voucherization of Medicare are two sides of the same reform – because would push a large class of citizens into a common risk pool. And it’s why successful health-care reform matters more to union expansion than any other reform – because the biggest fear employers have with regard to unions is being turned into the airlines or the auto companies, crippled by a generation of retired unionized employees with gold-plated benefits.

Progressives have understandably thrown their all into the Wisconsin fight, once the battle was joined. But I guess my bottom line is that Katrina vanden Heuvel is exactly wrong. Yeah, a lot of people have been mobilized, and a big database has been compiled. But there is no future in this particular fight. And to win, you have to win the future.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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