‘50s unions in 2010

Robert "Mickey" Kaus, a blogger and the author of "The End of Equality," is a candidate for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary.

Do you have to love labor unions to be a good Democrat? That was the question raised last year by the unpopular bailouts of unionized Detroit automakers. It’s been raised again this year by California’s budget crisis, created at least in part by generous pensions for unionized public employees. I think the answer is no. It’s time for Democrats, even liberal Democrats, to start looking at unions and unionism with deep skepticism.

I don’t mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they’ve been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don’t need a union so much, do you?

At the same time unions were winning government protections, changes in the economy were making mainstream unionism itself an impediment to growth. We are no longer living in a world in which big, slow-moving bureaucratic organizations are the engines of prosperity. Only fast-moving, flexible ones prosper today. Technology changes too rapidly. Firms have to be able to make snap decisions: expand here, contract there, change the way they work every day. That was the lesson of Japan -- how 1,000 little improvements in productivity can add up to a big advantage.


But our union system is stuck in 1950, when it was considered a glorious achievement to generate thick books full of work rules that restricted what could be changed. At some automobile plants, every position on the assembly line was considered a distinct job classification. You wouldn’t want an “Installer Level II” to have to do the job of an “Installer Level I,” would you? Then came the competition from Japanese factories, where employees spent their time building cars instead of work rules, and there was only one job classification: “production.” If something needed doing, you did it. Is it any wonder the Japanese cleaned Detroit’s clock for two decades?

Keep in mind that Detroit’s union, the United Auto Workers, is one of our best. It’s democratic. It’s not corrupt. Its leadership has often been visionary. Yet working within our archaic union system, it still helped bring our greatest industry to its knees. And the taxpayers were stuck with the bill for bailing it out, while UAW members didn’t even take a cut of $1 an hour in their $28-an-hour basic pay. How many Californians would like $27-an-hour manufacturing jobs? Actually, there was a good auto factory in California, the NUMMI plant in Fremont. It got sucked under when GM went broke. Those 4,500 jobs are gone.

Yet the answer of most union leaders to the failure of 1950s unionism has been more 1950s unionism. This isn’t how we’re going to get prosperity back. But it’s the official Democratic Party dogma. No dissent allowed.

Government unions are even more problematic (and as private sector unions have failed in the marketplace, government unions are increasingly dominant). If there are limits on what private unions can demand -- when they win too much, as we’ve seen, their employers tend to disappear -- there is no such limit on what government unions can demand. They just have to get the politicians to raise your taxes to pay for it, and by funding the Democratic machine, they acquire just the politicians they need.

No wonder that in our biggest school systems, it’s become virtually impossible to fight the teachers unions and fire bad teachers. The giant L.A. Unified school system, with 33,000 teachers, fires only about 21 a year, or fewer than 1 in 1,000, according to the findings of an L.A. Times investigation. Now either Los Angeles has the greatest teachers in the world or something is very wrong. Talk to parents and you’ll know the answer.

When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it’s been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.

As the private economy has faltered, we increasingly have a two-tier economy: If you’re an insider, a unionized government employee, you’re in good shape. Even if you don’t do a very good job, you won’t be fired. Even in hard times, Washington will spend billions in stimulus funds so that you don’t get laid off. You won’t even have to take much of a pay cut. And you can retire like an aristocrat at taxpayer expense. But if you’re an outsider, trying to survive in a world of $10-an-hour jobs, competing with immigrant labor, paying for your own healthcare, forced to send your children to lousy public schools run by unfireable teachers and $100,000-a-year bureaucrats -- well, good luck to you. But be sure to vote Democratic.

“The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits ... while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide ... but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact.”

That quote is from Willie Brown, a Democratic hero, explaining why the state may go the way of Vallejo and General Motors. Easy for him to say; he’s retired. But you won’t catch any Democrats who are running for office saying it. They’re too dependent on organized labor’s money and muscle.

We need nonretired Democrats who tell the unions no. Or else, perhaps after more bankruptcies and bailouts, Republicans will do it for them.