In the debate over public sector unions a lot of liberals have been arguing that they are a positive political counterweight to corporate interests and a defender of the working man, and without them democracy will fail, the American Dream will die, and the earth will drift into the sun… or something like that. I recently provided an example via twitter that I thought demonstrated this isn’t always the case: teacher union opposition to charter school caps, which you’d hardly call good for working class people.
Kevin Drum responded that a single incidence of union political malfeasance doesn’t make them bad overall. Well that would indeed be a silly argument to make, and were this the only example of unions being on the wrong side of educational reform then that clearly would be the argument I was making. But do I really have to run down the litany of bad policies unions have fought to keep, and good policies they’ve fought against in education reform? A clear indicator of how bad they’ve been is that the most anyone will say in their defense on education reform is that “well, some unions are embracing reform now in some places!”. That’s some defense. As Megan McArdle sarcastically pointed out on twitter “to be fair, it DID only take thirty years”.
But is education reform the only place the public sector unions have been a very important obstacle to good policy? Here’s another important example from Ezra Klein from way back in the health care debate:
I have bad dreams. Nightmares, really. They used to be pretty rare. Every fortnight, maybe. But ever since the public employee unionAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employeestook a knife to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), they’ve been coming more frequently.
Wyden, after all, is a liberal Democrat. AFSCME is a left-leaning union. Both are desperate for health reform. But AFSCME is spending its time attacking Wyden. Why? Because Wyden wants to replace the employer tax exclusion (I told you that thing was important!) with a progressive tax deduction that all Americans, not just those with good employer benefits, would get. That means the poorest among us would get slightly more and AFSCME’s members might get slightly less….
They’re hitting Wyden to demonstrate their willingness to attack anyone who touches their tax benefit. This is less an assault on Wyden than a warning to Wyden’s colleagues.
And AFSCME isn’t necessarily alone. The Health Care for America Now coalition, which includes AFSCME and other unions, has come out against touching the employer tax exclusion…
And all this elides a simple fact: Capping the employer health care exclusion is good policy. Eliminating it entirely would be better policy.
Of course, critics will say “Ok, you’ve got two policies charter school caps and the employer tax exclusion for health care.” But education reform is a big one, and obviously about more than charter schools caps, and as I’m sure Ezra would agree, getting rid of the employer deduction would be a really big step in reforming health care. But really, my opposition to unions can stand on economics alone: they’re an anti-competitive cartel, and like other cartels are economically undesirable. It’s union defenders who need to appeal to the political power of unions to explain their desirability. I’m just pointing out some pretty terrible examples where this isn’t the case. See Megan for more.