News & Commentary

October 25, 2013

John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi explain in the Washington Post how some organizations, and labor unions in particular, are able to “expand the nature and scope of [their members’] political action, especially among those [members] for whom politics might otherwise not appear terribly relevant.” Through their leadership and education committees, unions alert their members to new political causes and activities, and provide them a way of acting on those causes. In this way, unions can be vehicles for expanding the political initiatives their members care about. “Thus it is possible — though difficult — for these groups to take positions and sustain costly group actions on topics far from the organization’s original raison d’etre.” According to the authors, this finding is significant given the usual tendency of individuals to sort “themselves into organizations of the like-minded” and reinforce the opinions they already have.

The LA Times ran a profile of Steve Glazer, a Democrat running for a seat in the California State Assembly who is campaigning partly on a platform of banning transit strikes. Affected by the recent BART strike and other transit stoppages in the Bay Area, Glazer argues that “transit in an important public service,” and that “regional economies are dependent on allowing people to get to where they need.” While Democratic legislative leaders have rejected this idea, Glazer notes that New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have all banned transit strikes. According to the article, analysts are looking at Glazer’s race as an indication of how possible it is for Democrats to distance themselves from traditional labor goals.

In the Washington Post, Larry Bartels examines a new study that uses the effects of the recession to shed light on the role of unions in shaping different states’ fiscal policies. Bartels writes that while the recession forced many states to make budget cuts and lay off government workers, “public sector unions seem to have played a significant role in shielding state government services from the budget ax. However, what is more surprising is that states with powerful public sector unions were no less likely to respond to the fiscal crisis by cutting state government employment.” According to Bartels, these findings cast doubt on the theory that unions automatically hinder states’ efforts to reduce their budgets or workforces in times of crisis.

In entertainment news, the Wall Street Journal reports that at least one union is trying to capitalize on the attention Hollywood is bringing to its industry. The new film Captain Phillips portrays the merchant mariner Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009. The International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots appreciates the attention the movie is bringing to its industry, and is using its publicity to lobby Congress not to reduce the number of American merchant marine vessels it subsidizes.

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