Ezra Klein, whistling bravely past the graveyard, has a piece in the Daily Beast today in which he argues that the fight over public unions in Wisconsin is
the best thing to happen to the union movement in recent memory. Give the man some credit: In seven days, Walker did what unions have been trying and failing to do for decades. He united the famously fractious movement, reknit its emotional connection with allies ranging from students to national Democratic leaders, and brought the decline of organized labor to the forefront of the national agenda. The question is: Will it matter?
The answer, I’m confident, is no. As Klein points out, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has been declining steadily for decades (it peaked about 1953). As manufacturing jobs continue to decline, thanks to globalization, automation, and other forces more profound than the union movement ever was, it will continue to decline until it is essentially one with the Greenback Party and the Wobblies. And for the same reason: they were an answer to yesterday’s problems, not today’s.
Klein’s arguments are remarkably out-of-date, but then, of course, so is liberalism.
He argues that unions “give workers a voice within — and, when necessary, leverage against — their employer.” That was true in the days when most industrial jobs were repetitive and low-skill. When workers were interchangeable, they had no bargaining power, except collectively. Today most industries hire people for their individual talents and skills, not for their ability to screw the same top onto the same ketchup bottle for hours at a time. Just consider: the Wagner Act, as amended by Taft-Hartley, still governs union organizing. If the employees of Microsoft and Intel wanted to unionize, they could easily do so, and unions are free to encourage them to do so. But the very idea is laughable.
Klein quotes John Kenneth Galbraith (whose career as an economic thinker peaked in 1958 with the publication of The Affluent Society) that unions are a “‘countervailing power’ in an economy dominated by large corporations.” Of the 30 corporations that made up the Dow-Jones Industrial Average in 1958, exactly two are still in it, DuPont and Exxon. Many of those in the Dow in 1958 are bankrupt or have merged. The economy may (or may not) be dominated by large corporations, but the corporations doing the dominating are not the same. Intel, Microsoft, Google, Wal-Mart, and other “dominating corporations” today were not even founded (and in some cases, their founders not even born) in 1958. Unions, far from being a countervailing force in the economy, are a reactionary force, resisting change at every turn because their “business model” is so outdated.
Klein argues that “unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests.” As I pointed out the other day when Paul Krugman was beating this drum — that’s nonsense. Labor is a bigger supplier of money than business, and the top 10 industries in the country as ranked by political contributions all give more to Democrats than to Republicans.
Finally, he argues that a “world without organized labor is a world where workers have less voice and corporations are even more dominant and unchecked across both the economy and the political system.” What Klein very carefully fails to point out, of course, is that the fight in Wisconsin is not over unions and collective bargaining with corporations (an argument that was settled in the 1930s); it is over unions and collective bargaining with governments. The evidence that that is a recipe for fiscal disaster is now overwhelming. Of course, most of that evidence postdates the 1950s, when public-employee unions were very rare and collective bargaining with governments even rarer. George Meany, who headed up the AFL-CIO after their merger in 1955, thought collective bargaining with governments was “impossible.”
You would think that someone like Ezra Klein, who seems to live in a 1950s time warp economically despite having been born in 1984, would know that.