Whether or not the various goings on in Wisconsin succeed in forcing Governor Scott Walker to scale back his anti-union program to some extent, I have to say that the long-term prognosis here doesn’t look good to me. Private sector unions have been slowly eroding in influence for decades. It’s been a profoundly long-term process that’s been more or less proceeding apace since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. When given the shot in 2009 to pass something that would make it feasible to organize private sector workplaces again, congressional Democrats not only failed to pass the rather audacious Employee Free Choice Act, they didn’t really pass anything. Then right after the Republican Party spent the better part of two years lambasting Barack Obama for trying to save the domestic automobile industry, the entire industrial midwest decided that it wanted to go all-in on electing conservative state governments. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin—Republican, Republican, Republican.
Institutionally speaking public sector unions are in a much stronger position than private sector ones, so they’re in better shape, but they make for a less sympathetic cause. So after sixty years in which the American mainstream has worked relentless to crush labor in the private sector we’re now going to see an outpouring of columns about how of course private sector unions make sense but why bargain collectively against the public interest? The positive feedback loop of anti-union politics from here going forward seems quite clear to me. What’s more, thanks to balanced budget requirements some form of state-level austerity budgeting really is necessary (the federal government is different) and drastically weakened state-level progressives will naturally be reluctant to advance 100 percent tax hike budget alternatives.
I think people should shy away from overestimating the partisan stakes here. It’s true that in the very short term extirpating public sector unions will damage the finances of the Democratic Party. But the political system has a strong tendency toward equilibrium. Democrats will keep getting enough money to stay in business and will keep winning approximately half the elections. It’s just that in post-union America, rich businessmen will be the only viable sources of political funding. So to an even greater extent than is the case today, politics will take the form of “culture war” battles or “sector versus sector” fights (pharmaceutical companies’ support for the Affordable Care Act is probably the shape of things to come) over rents in which the fundamental interests of rich businessmen qua rich businessmen are off the table.
I think conservatives will see that the hoped-for small government benefits of all this are actually much more modest than they believe. When conservatopia arrives and kids all go to for-profit schools where they’re taught by non-unionized teachers, the school operators’ trade association will have all the same sometimes problematic incentives that the National Education Association has today. Heck, it’ll probably even be called the National Education Association. But instead of being a “union” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus egalitarian social policies, it’ll be a “business association” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus regressive social policies.