Last Tuesday didn't look so good for organized labor. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker and his reforms -- including eliminating compulsory membership and watering down collective bargaining rights --survived with a comfortable 7-point victory. In California -- home of the most union members in the country -- two major cities passed similar reforms via ballot initiatives passed by strong majorities.
The punditocracy says it's a sign that public support for unions is fading. It's understandable. We live in tough times, when pennies are hard to come by in local and state budgets -- and a sizeable amount of those pennies are paying for soaring public sector pensions and benefit costs. In bankrupt California cities like Vallejo (and soon-to-be Stockton), these costs are so overwhelming that cities can't even pay for basic services like running street lights and parking meters. It was a different scene in the late 1990's and early 2000's, when the state was rolling in dough. Unions convinced these city and state leaders to commit -- via the unbreakable bond of laws and constitutional legislation -- to pension benefits that late 1990's cities could afford. Now that the party's over, those inflexible commitments are breaking the backs of these communities.
So when Scott Walker's governorship and ballot measures cutting these over-commitments comes to a vote, and voters themselves don't have enough pennies to get by, of course they're going to pass.
Does this mean unions are losing relevance in American politics? And what would that mean, especially for the Democrat-Republican dynamic? Some say the weaker labor gets, the stronger big business and the GOP becomes. as Ezra Klein said in his Washington Post article, "Democrats will have to be that much more solicitous of business demands in order to keep from being spent into oblivion". On the other hand, an article in the Economist stated, "To the extent that the Democratic Party is beholden to public sector unions, it is constrained to promoting policies and reforms not inconsistent with the unions' interest in preserving the often dysfunctional and unsustainable status quo".
To me, there's an uncomfortable paradox here. Voters want more flexible, more fiscally responsible government; and unions aren't doing a convincing job that they do too. But unions have traditionally served as the counterweight to big business. Our new Citizens United reality is that there is now a legal connection between money and speech, when money is actually property -- a frightening situation that voters are seeing firsthand in the disproportionate and unhealthy influence that unrepresentative Super PACs have in the American political conversation.
So even though public support for unions may be down, voters are still wary of the steadily escalating influence of big business, leaving an opening for unions to come back swinging. At the heart of union spirit is a commitment to improving the quality of life for not just their workers, but their entire community. Right now, the quality of life of our communities is negatively impacted in areas -- like the pension and benefit crisis -- that unions have a substantial degree of influence in. They're in the perfect position to set in motion reforms that can make government more flexible, more efficient, more fiscally responsible, and more responsive to the society's greatest needs. Will these reforms require tough compromise? Yes. Will they require a painful acceptance that over promised benefits are unsustainable? Of course. But voters want action, and the more that unions initiate real and effective change, the more people will be drawn to their cause.
Right now, there is no well-financed, well-organized, and well-placed movement in American politics that is fighting for the equality of opportunity, increased social mobility, fairer and more accountable government, and social justice. Will unions step in to fill the gap?