Guest Post: Progressives and Public Sector Unions–Mehlhorn Responds

Published July 21st, 2014 -  - 07.21.1410


Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Democratic donor and activist.  His legal publications include A Requiem for Blockbusting and The Fettered Liberty to Integrate.  He is a partner with the investment network Vidinovo.  This post is the next in a series on progressives and public sector unions—the entire series is available here.

SEIU Local 32BJ Associate General Counsel Andrew Strom has joined Professor Jake Rosenfeld in critiquing the progressive case against compulsory dues in the public sector.

Strom’s engagement matters, as the SEIU may be the single most important audience for this discussion.  Since the Daily Beast published my initial essay, Democratic donors and activists have contacted me with the specific concern that public sector organizing is weakening the SEIU’s efficacy as a force for justice.  The SEIU is a great example of how labor organizers share tactics and ideas nationally.  If the SEIU were to focus on private sector workers, it could throw tremendous momentum behind the movement for living wages.  Instead, the SEIU is an example of how public labor organizing can suck the oxygen out of private labor organizing across geographies.

To refocus the substantive discussion, let me review the economic and political realities that have been addressed only tangentially by Strom and Rosenfeld. Public services are monopolies. Collective bargaining in such situations weakens checks and balances, because public unions control the careers of their negotiating counterparties.  As a result, wages, benefits, work rules, and public policies tend to increase the cost and reduce the availability of public services.  Poor citizens rely more than others on these public services.  Together, all of this erodes political support for the overall labor movement.

In response to these realities, Strom & Rosenfeld offer two common rebuttals:

  • Rosenfeld refers to high public unionization rates in prosperous Europe and prosperous US states, and low public unionization rates in poor US states. He uses this to argue that public unions do not exacerbate poverty or weaken unions.
  • Strom refers to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. He uses this to argue that blue-collar public workers need unions to protect their interests.

Unfortunately, these arguments mix up cause and effect.

Start with Strom’s example.  I agree that the sanitation workers were part of an unjustly impoverished underclass.  The question is whether public unions were necessary, sufficient, or even helpful in improving conditions for that underclass.  Strom himself provides the crucial insight against his own case when he points out that blue-collar workers in the public and private sector come from the same labor pool.  Many labor scholars have noted how strong blue-collar private sector unions improve working conditions for all blue-collar workers—even those who are not themselves in unions.  Left unchecked, the private sector labor movement, along with economic growth and the civil rights movement, would have done the best possible job of breaking up the tangles of poverty in Memphis.

To address Rosenfeld’s geographic argument more specifically, consider New York City’s public unions. Strom would say that NYC’s public workers organized in response to real problems. Rosenfeld would say that the city has strong private sector unions and great wealth. Both points would be correct–but irrelevant to the argument. When NYC gave its public workers collective bargaining rights in 1958, its wealth and private sector unions were already in place. From 1958 onwards, public unions demanded contracts that created long-term fiscal imbalances, helping drive the city to the brink of bankruptcy in 1975. The city rebounded only when mayors fought back against the public unions to improve city services and create significant fiscal reserves.

The deleterious role of public unions becomes even clearer across other geographies and time periods.  In the US, public unions emerged alongside the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement.  In Europe, public unions emerged during post-war rebuilding and increasing intra-European free trade. In none of these cases do we find evidence that public unions independently advanced social justice and prosperity.  On the contrary, more and more polities are poised to join Greece and Detroit in showing how much the poor suffer when politicians fail to stand up to the public unions.  Meanwhile, technology and social media trends make it easier to organize and blow the whistle on abuse, reducing the case for public sector compulsory dues in the first place.

Strom has other arguments, but they all fall into one of two categories: either correct and irrelevant, or disappointing and discredited.  In the former category, we can put his critique of corporate welfare.  Yes, corporate welfare is bad—but cutting corporate welfare would not address the underlying problems with public unions.  In the second category, we can put Strom’s defense of union-promoted policies such as “Three Strikes” and “Last In, First Out,” as well as his claim that the “real culprit” in the BART strike is Silicon Valley’s wealth-creating ecosystem.  According to almost every neutral observer, Three Strikes and “Last In, First Out” are bad for the poor.  And let’s face it: Silicon Valley is a huge success, making the world a better place and funding an enormous share of California’s long-term budget imbalance.  The electorate will trust progressives with the economy only when we leave these discredited claims in the dust heap of history.

Finally, neither Strom nor Rosenfeld addresses the idea that public professionals such as teachers would be better off forming a guild along the lines of the American Medical Association.  Such a change would move us toward a public sector based upon ideals of excellence, professionalism, and respect.  Alongside a renewed private labor movement, this would help our country restore an economy based broadly on middle class growth.

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