Friday, February 25, 2011

Unions will never be perfect. They're still essential.

I don't have much to say about Wisconsin that hasn't been said already. But there is one thing that people have said that I'm going to say again, because I think it has the potential to be the most long-lasting effect of the last two weeks in Madison.

Moderate progressives, self-effacing and forever eager to qualify and equivocate, have been pretty hard on unions over the last few decades. Early unions are part of a heroic narrative with universal appeal -- David v. Goliath, the haves v. the have-nots, the powerful v. the powerless. But then unions started winning.

Since then, it's been hard not to look at unions and see the same flaws that exist in any other institution. They privilege members over non-members. Their politics can be dirty. They place self-interest ahead of principle. Sometimes, they are corrupt. They aren't good at balancing competing interests, or often even at recognizing that competing interests exist.

Considering that these are the same problems that liberals criticize in corporations and government, it's uncomfortable to be caught apologizing for unions. And over the last few years I've heard many, many progressives say something to the effect of "Unions did admirable work when factories were deathtraps and workers couldn't make a living wage, but now, they've outlived their usefulness." Particularly among the liberal upper classes, for whom politics is more culture war than class war, the centrality of blue collar concerns to the progressive cause seemed questionable. In short, unions were an anachronism.

Along came Scott Walker.

By taking one brave stand against the right of workers to have a say in their work, Scott Walker has walked back years of liberal apathy on unions.

There's the old political cliche about boiling a frog by slowly turning up the heat.* Scott Walker has grabbed the knob and cranked the stove all the way up. The result has been a sudden awakening among progressive thought leaders to the plight of the working class in America. In a flash, everyone was talking about the years of accretive pressure on unions. All the technocratic skepticism of unions melted away and was replaced with shared outrage.

But it's more important than that, even. Because Scott Walker has also reminded everyone on the left why unions are important. Unions aren't immune to the institutional pressures and incentives that guide corporations and politicians. But unions are important because of whose incentives they embody.

The rich and the well-off have a voice in our society, and I don't think it requires much cynicism to say that they use it to address the problems that the rich and well-off are worried about. It's working! The rich keep getting richer at everyone else's expense. After all, who's going to stop them? As it turns out, David Koch can call the governor of Wisconsin and have a friendly chat whenever he wants. The very wealthy (as opposed to the obscenely wealthy) might not have that privilege, but they can run for city council, they can they donate to their favorite candidates, they can advertise, campaign, join or fund organizations. Meanwhile, a poor person can cast a vote -- if they have the proper photo ID, anyway -- but not much else.

To play this game, you first have to become rich too. You can't beat them without joining them. And once you've joined them, you'll probably start thinking like them. Incentives are everything.

Incentives are everything, and that's the key. Even if we assume the worst about unions -- that they only care about their own, and that they contribute nothing to nonmembers -- it's worth asking why that's such a bad thing. Surely the mass of people who don't have voices on their own, and who don't have anything in common with the millionaires who otherwise speak for them, deserve a chance to look out for number one, just like the rest of us. Perfect competition on the political marketplace, so to speak.

For too long, progressives have seemed apologetic that unions aren't the paragons of social justice that old-time socialists wanted them to be. But unions still play an essential role in a functioning democratic society, and thanks to Scott Walker, I think people are finally remembering that.

At least for now, unions are important again.

*By the way, this isn't true, but no one told Glenn Beck.

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