When Ideology, Practicality, and Habit Collide

Writing at the Daily Beast, Dmitri Mehlhorn explain why progressives shouldn’t support public sector unions any more:

By 2012, public-sector workers had union membership rates more than five times higher than rates among private-sector workers.

Essentially, the public-sector unions sucked up all the oxygen. Talented labor organizers opted to work with government workers: their members were relatively prosperous and well connected, so they were easy and lucrative to organize. As explained in Jake Rosenfeld’s book What Unions No Longer Do from earlier this year, this shift to public-sector unions meant that unions no longer fought primarily for the working poor. Instead, much of their muscle was devoted to improving the status of middle-class professionals.

The unionization of the public sector did not merely weaken private-sector unions; it directly harmed the well-being of the working poor. To see why, consider who pays the price of benefits and work rules collectively bargained by public unions. In 2000, when I lived in Los Angeles, the city’s bus drivers went on strike for 32 days. At that time, the average bus driver was making roughly $50,000 a year. While perhaps not generous, that was far more than the average bus rider, who earned just $15,000 a year.

Basically, today’s unionized public sector worker is a lot less like Norma Rae and a lot more like Babbitt. As I said during the Chicago teachers’ strike last year, the question is not whether teachers deserve a raise. The question is how someone earning $15,000 a year will pay for the raises of someone earning $70,000 a year.

However, I think that Mr. Mehlhorn is wasting his pixels. These positions aren’t governed by ideology or even by reason but by practicality, nostalgia, and the force of habit.

They are practical in the sense that an enormous amount of Democratic political funding comes from public sector unions. Just take a gander at the list of top political donors. #2 and #3 on that list are AFSCME and the NEA. They are nostalgia in the sense that today’s union workers, immigrants, farmers, and so on aren’t the union workers, immigrants, and farmers of a century ago. Circumstances have changed but ideologies and the political positions they give rise to have not changed accordingly.

Finally, I wish I had some way of quantifying how large a proportion of people vote the way they do simply out of habit. They vote Democratic because their parents and grandparents voted Democratic. They can’t imagine voting any other way because the other guys are evil.

1 comment… add one

  • jan

    Another example of questionably high public employees’ salaries are found in a southern CA city having strict rent control, where the average salary of a Rent Control employee is roughly $150,000/yr with full benefits, including generous pension plans. And, even though the case and work loads have remarkably diminished over the years to just a trickle, the staffing has remained constant, with more time available for browsing face book, I suppose.

    In the meantime, this same community is complaining about future budget deficit problems — mainly regarding covering the ever-increasing, lucrative government employee pensions that have been carved out and promised to them by the unions. In accordance with trying to find more money, ticketing has increased, people formerly not requiring business licenses are being asked to pay fees, meters having instant resets when cars leave are being installed, rent control registration fees are in the mill to be raised (increases being paid by owners), are only a few examples of how this city is extracting revenue anywhere it can. Consequently, it’s become a town with no monetary mercy or conscience to visitors or the small business sectors, having priorities set and a vigilant eye on basically keeping it’s public employees happy and a gradually gentrified rent control populace in tow

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