Why Republicans Should Love Unions
To succeed at shrinking government, you've got to empower workers.
By David K. Shipler
David K. Shipler's latest book is "The Working Poor: Invisible in America"
March 6, 2005
If Republicans were true to their stated principles of smaller government,
free-market economics and the "ownership society" touted by President Bush,
they would do something quite alien to their traditional practice: They
would support the spread of labor unions instead of trying every trick to
foil workers' efforts to organize.
Unions have almost disappeared from the private sector, where they represent
merely 7.9% of workers. Government employees are better organized, at 36%,
but overall union membership in the country has fallen to its lowest level
since the Depression < about 12.5% of all workers, a steep decline from 35%
half a century ago.
This makes pro-business conservatives happy, but it shouldn't, because it
throws a monkey wrench into the machinery of capitalism.
Republicans who believe that the source of economic well- being is the
private sector, not government programs, cannot shrink government in a just
way until the private sector functions well for workers at the bottom rung
of our society. That won't happen until employers pay higher wages and
benefits. They won't do that until the market requires it, and the market
won't make that demand until workers can level the playing field with their
employers through collective bargaining. A marketplace works freely only
when both sides of the transaction have negotiating power.
Plain, everyday facts subvert the conservative agenda of privatization:
Without higher earnings, millions of workers will continue to depend on
Medicaid for their children's health insurance, on food stamps to feed their
families and on housing subsidies to bring rent down to manageable levels.
Either government pays or private employers pay < or people go sick and
hungry and homeless.
Yet the Republican Party, seduced by campaign contributions from big
business and the wishful thinking of some theorists, marches in near total
anti-union lock step.
Is this really good politics? Would broader unionization help or hinder
Republicans at the ballot box?
Unions usually campaign for Democrats. John Kerry won 65% of union members'
votes last November. But a group of congressional members who call
themselves "labor Republicans," mostly from the Northeast, routinely breaks
that pattern by supporting unions.
Sen. Arlen Specter won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO last year and got 52%
of the union vote in Pennsylvania. He was one of 10 Republican congressional
candidates endorsed by the AFL-CIO for supporting a bill to protect workers
from harassment and dismissal when they try to organize. The measure < which
didn't pass but is being reintroduced in the new Congress < has two main
goals. It would stiffen fines against employers found to have harassed
employees who wanted to unionize and it would allow for a simpler, faster
way for workers to be unionized, replacing all-out, heavily contested
elections with a simple "card-check" that recognizes a union if most workers
sign up to join. (Elections sound democratic, but they can be delayed by
employers to allow time for threats and propaganda. For example, managers
have singled out union supporters for extra work, summoned them individually
for interrogation and called in police on election day to create an air of
Today, much of organized labor's decline has resulted from the global
outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and the fact that rising service and
technology industries are not yet unionized. There is also an out-and-out
assault on the already unionized.
Two new Republican governors, Matt Blunt of Missouri and Mitch Daniels of
Indiana, suspended collective bargaining by their state employees as soon as
they took office in January. Bush has proposed revising decades of Civil
Service rules by giving managers enormous authority to set the pay and
assignments of federal employees.
Certainly unions are not perfect institutions. When they get too powerful,
they can drive companies out of business; there are examples in the
newspaper, railroad and airline industries. When they are too weak, they can
help their members only marginally. Now, for the most part, unions, such as
those among janitors and parking garage attendants, are too weak and too
small, giving employers excessive power.
Conservatives should not like this. They should not want the free market to
fail millions of the employed. They should not want to lose labor votes.
"Whatever party you're in," says Andy Levin, director of the AFL-CIO's
campaign to change the federal law on organizing, "if you're for the robust
protections to form unions, we're for you." The question is, what are
Republicans for - a free market or a rigged market?