Strong opinions, weakly held

My big picture view of Wisconsin

I’ve been watching the battle between the Tea Party governor of Wisconson and the public employees’ unions there with interest. First, let me say that it’s completely obvious that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is clearly trying to take an opportunity to permanently weaken his ideological enemies under the guise of addressing the state’s budget shortfall.

Conservatives hate organized labor, and he’s trying to stick it to organized labor. It’s not much more complicated than that. The question is, do unions, public sector or otherwise, have something to contribute to the national debate? Are they worthy of our support?

In my view, they are. Here’s a graph that’s been going around this week. It’s from a collection of data about income inequality in America published by Mother Jones. I saw the same graphs somewhere else last year, and they struck me then as well.

Inequality ctualdistribwithlegend

What the graph shows is that Americans, generally speaking, don’t know how much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the richest people, and that they think even their perceived distribution is unfair to the people at the lower end of the spectrum.

It’s a simple fact that labor unions are some of the only organized groups actually working to make America’s distribution of wealth look more like the bottom bar and less like the top bar.

The least painful way to address income inequality in America is to restore economic growth and make sure that the people on the lower end of the wealth spectrum benefit more from that grown that the people at the higher end. For the past decade, we saw the opposite – rich people reaped nearly all the gains of economic growth and it was bad for America. These days, conservatives don’t seem to even support policies that will lead to robust growth in the short or long term.

There are two mechanisms by which people from the middle class down can claim a larger share of the spoils of a growing economy. The first is for the government to enact policies that shift the wealth from rich to poor, and the second is for workers to negotiate with their employers for a larger piece of the pie.

Unions assist workers on both fronts so I support them, imperfect as they are.


  1. My problem with unions lies in their lack of standards for their members. This obviously isn’t true for everyone, but in general, if unions are going to demand fair pay, then they should make sure that their members are actually worth the pay that they ask for. In our society right now, there is a stigma attached to the concept of “union workers”, because they have a reputation for being bad at what they do.

    Despite that major problem though, I think they’re definitely an important part of our society. Both my parents are members of unions, and my health insurance is provided by a union.

  2. “It’s a simple fact that labor unions are some of the only organized groups actually working to make America’s distribution of wealth look more like the top bar and less like the bottom bar.”

    I think you mean the other way around…

  3. Whoops! Fixed.

  4. Thanks for that, Rafe.

  5. If only what you are writing were true. The problem is that unions only serve to take money away from one worker and give it to another. It helps those already employed at the expense of the unemployed. It helps those in unionized companies at the expense of those workers in ununionized companies. Unions serve to benefit their own members, nothing more. And seldom is that for the larger good of society. Which is why I, a card-carrying German liberal socialist, dislike unions and think they have too much power.

    Read more at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog: http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/02/labour_unions_0

  6. Unions began out of the need to protect the unprotected and abused workers from the practices of unscrupulous corporations during the dust bowl and depression eras and were sorely needed by those workers. In that situation, where the corporations had all the power and the workers needed to band together to protect themselves, they were a good thing. They’ve grown so powerful at this point that the original intent may still be there in theory but their practices have gotten almost to the point of being the same as those they were fighting against. I still support unions, and I’m sure I always will, as a way for workers to protect themselves. But I would like to see them perform their original function and not become the mirror image of the thing that workers first organized to gain protection from.

  7. re: Magnus

    Certainly unions exist to benefit their own members. That’s why you usually have different unions forming at different jobs.

    And you are correct, they don’t extend a lot of benefits to non-unionized workers…hence the desire to destroy them by employers so they can lower everyone down to the non-unionized level. However, often the collective bargaining makes employers extend holidays, etc. to normal workers.

    What corruption exists in unions exists in all organizations, the only key difference is the ability to participate in unions. Much like government, which often contains corrupt people, the only good thing about government is the ability for anyone to participate in it with a vote, etc. This may not seem like much, but most people have no vote in corporations.

    As for the often-cited argument that unions tend ‘break’ companies. The executives at the larger car companies that promised unfunded retirement benefits to union workers back in the 50’s or 60’s certainly made out fine. It was the people left holding these unfunded obligations that got destroyed, and the union workers themselves.

    The few places that run a nice business people like to work at (Costco for example) seem to be run that way because they have a benevolent founder, which is more the exception than the norm. Every analyst hates the compensation structure at Costco, as they see the short-term gain from higher profits if the labor costs went down. I fully expect Costco to someday be run by someone that will heed the analysts and the good times will be over, because the workers will have no say.

    Unless they form a union.

  8. There is a big difference between public employee unions and industry trade unions.

    I have no sympathy at all for the car company that ‘breaks’ under the weight of its union. Unions in the private sector will usually do what is necessary to keep the company afloat. I have been a union and non-union member and I really don’t see much difference between the two.

    In public unions, taxpayers and school children are held hostage every year with the threat of strikes or “work-to-rule.” They seem to think they are entitled to raises annually while their employers are losing money. I’m not sure where they think the money comes from. Does it really help the state if the union accepts less of an increase than the previous year? Why is no increase not an option? And (At least in my state) public unions will never accept more than a 1 year contract? It seems really unfair. Unlike in the private sector, public employees need not worry about their state closing or moving overseas.

  9. I’d have no problem with public sector unions if tax payers had the same right to go on strike. However, if I as a taxpayer decide to go on strike, I get thrown in jail.

    When a union decides to strike and hold the tax payer hostage, they usually get what they want. I’m so glad I live in a right to work state and not a closed shop state.

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