Unions and the GOP

As an historian, I get pretty frustrated by the Republican Party. I understand why the Party of Big Business ™ is anti-union but I don’t understand why the Party of Small Government is against unions for Public Employees. Here’s my thought process.

The GOP and the Tea Partiers make a big deal these days about the Founders and their vision of small government. It’s not strictly accurate since the Constitution greatly enlarged the powers of the national government over what it could do under the Articles of Confederation, but they were skeptical enough of a strong central government–stemming from their experiences with the strong central goverment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland–that when they did create our current system, they loaded it with checks and balances. Okay this is a good thing.

In the 19th Century and early 20th Century, corporations got to be so big that they were able to run roughshod over the concept of a free market for labor. Coal mines were able to keep their employees in near-slavery (distinguished by their inability to buy and trade employees like capital), railroad and manufacturing could kill and maim their employees, if not directly then at the very least through indifference to their safety, and all kinds of employers could exploit their employees with low wages. Individual workers didn’t have the negotiating power that large corporations did until they banded together and fought for and won collective bargaining rights.

In the mid- to late 20th Century we saw massive growth of the Federal government for a variety of reasons, but one of the reasons had its roots in that same late 19th-early 20th Century period when Progressives and Populists started working to protect ordinary workers (voters) from their oppressive corporate overlords.

Flash forward to today. Government, for certain sectors of Conservatism is The Enemy and at every level–Federal, State, and Local–the rallying cry is “Smaller!” They want checks on government power, especially checks on spending. The Governor of Wisconsin and his fellow-Republican legislators have proposed legislation to strip government workers of their collective bargaining rights. They claim that it is all about fiscal responsibility and budget cutting, but even when the unions accede to the budget provisions, they still insist on pressing forward for the revocation of collective bargaining. Let me remind you that collective bargaining is a means for workers to check the power and influence of their employers. In this case, their employer is the State Government.

The thing that confuses me about this is that people who are begging for checks on government power are, at the same time, trying to break one of those checks on government. Let’s not pretend that this is strictly about balancing the budget. Bargaining with all of your employees at once doesn’t require you to give in to demands that are going to cripple your budget.

I heard Governor Scott Walker on Meet The Press this morning complain about how, as a local government official, the public employee unions beat him at the negotiating table. I was involved in negotiations with the teachers’ union back in my School Board days. The Spearfish Education Association wasn’t allowed to strike, but they were allowed to picket and get out in front of the community and make headlines in a town that hardly ever sees anything like that. We avoided impasse with the union during the negotiations that we had, we weren’t exactly popular with the unions, but neither did we have to go make drastic changes to the property tax to pay for teacher raises. Not that they didn’t deserve bigger raises than they got, but the school board needs to strike a balance between the needs of their employees and the needs of their constituents (taxpayers). My response to Gov. Walker is that if you aren’t eloquent enough to talk your union into understanding the position you are in, or not savvy enough to give on items that don’t cost much but still have value to the union, or tough enough to just say no when a demand from the union is out of the question, then you ought not be in public office.

It also came out in his interview that he didn’t force changes on the Police and Fire Department unions. They won’t have to take the cuts the other unions would and they won’t have to lose any collective bargaining rights. The governor said that losing teachers for three days was an inconvenience but losing Public Safety employees for any length of time was not something he wanted to face. In other words, he didn’t want to take on any union he thought would make him look bad in the eyes of the Public. I’m not sure he chose wisely.


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