Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Democrat making sense on unions

If you haven't seen the column that Mickey Kaus, the quirky blogger who is running in the California Democratic primary against Barbara Boxer, just wrote in the LA Times, head on over and read it. Kaus breaks with liberal orthodoxy and says that it is time for Democrats to start being skeptical about unions. Kaus makes the point that, as I've taught the history of the labor movement in US history I think is so clear, unions once served a very important purpose in our economy and achieved great things for their workers. But they've achieved their major goals of safe working conditions, good salaries, and great benefits for workers. Times have changed and we don't need unions that are fighting the battles of the 19th century or even from the 1950s. And Kaus recognizes that it is time for a change.
But our union system is stuck in 1950, when it was considered a glorious achievement to generate thick books full of work rules that restricted what could be changed. At some automobile plants, every position on the assembly line was considered a distinct job classification. You wouldn't want an "Installer Level II" to have to do the job of an "Installer Level I," would you? Then came the competition from Japanese factories, where employees spent their time building cars instead of work rules, and there was only one job classification: "production." If something needed doing, you did it. Is it any wonder the Japanese cleaned Detroit's clock for two decades?

Keep in mind that Detroit's union, the United Auto Workers, is one of our best. It's democratic. It's not corrupt. Its leadership has often been visionary. Yet working within our archaic union system, it still helped bring our greatest industry to its knees. And the taxpayers were stuck with the bill for bailing it out, while UAW members didn't even take a cut of $1 an hour in their $28-an-hour basic pay. How many Californians would like $27-an-hour manufacturing jobs? Actually, there was a good auto factory in California, the NUMMI plant in Fremont. It got sucked under when GM went broke. Those 4,500 jobs are gone.

Yet the answer of most union leaders to the failure of 1950s unionism has been more 1950s unionism. This isn't how we're going to get prosperity back. But it's the official Democratic Party dogma. No dissent allowed.
And Kaus recognizes that the increasing power of public unions is coming to threaten the economies of states such as California as well as the country at large.
Government unions are even more problematic (and as private sector unions have failed in the marketplace, government unions are increasingly dominant). If there are limits on what private unions can demand — when they win too much, as we've seen, their employers tend to disappear — there is no such limit on what government unions can demand. They just have to get the politicians to raise your taxes to pay for it, and by funding the Democratic machine they acquire just the politicians they need.

No wonder that in our biggest school systems, it's become virtually impossible to fight the teachers unions and fire bad teachers. The giant Los Angeles Unified school system, with 33,000 teachers, fires only about 21 a year, or fewer than 1 in 1,000, according to the findings of an L.A. Times investigation. Now either Los Angeles has the greatest teachers in the world or something is very wrong. Talk to parents and you'll know the answer.

When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it's been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.

As the private economy has faltered, we increasingly have a two-tier economy: If you're an insider, a unionized government employee, you're in good shape. Even if you don't do a very good job, you won't be fired. Even in hard times, Washington will spend billions in stimulus funds so that you don't get laid off. You won't even have to take much of a pay cut. And you can retire like an aristocrat at taxpayer expense. But if you're an outsider, trying to survive in a world of $10-an-hour jobs, competing with immigrant labor, paying for your own healthcare, forced to send your children to lousy public schools run by unfireable teachers and $100,000-a-year bureaucrats — well, good luck to you. But be sure to vote Democratic.
Of course Kaus has no expectation of actually defeating Barbara Boxer. That is why he's free to say what would be poison to any real politician. But what he's saying is so very important for voters to hear. As long as the Democratic Party is a fully owned subsidiary of the unions, there can be no serious reform of how government relates to unions and the unions themselves won't change.

For example of the power and myopic vision of public sector unions in California, how about the teachers going on strike for one day in Oakland simply because the school district added in an expansion of funding for charter schools that are competing with Oakland's failing schools to a new tax to raise teacher salaries. The unions are upset because they don't want any of the new tax money to go to charter schools but the district needed to include that in order to get the necessary two-thirds support from the electorate to approve the tax increase. And so the teachers went on strike for one day to express their ire.

I just hope that Kaus's message gets out and California's Democratic voters decide to send Barbara Boxer her own message. Not that she would change her positions, but one can dream, can't one? At least, it may become clear throughout the state what the unions have wrought.