Misery Needs Company, Contd.

Misery Needs Company, Part Deux prompted a series of useful comments from readers Melon, Dan K., and JR. I’m going to respond here to a central thread therein. As Dan K. asks, ‘Are luxurious union contracts contributing in a significant way to our economic problems’? (By ‘economic problems,’ I presume state budgets like Wisconsin’s are at issue.)

Now, if it is the luxuriousness of those contracts that is a problem, then the correct response presumably would be to renegotiate  those contracts when they expire. But not, surely, to take away collective bargaining rights? Does this follow as well?  Clearly, Scott Walker thought so, for that was his strategy in Wisconsin. However, to go from ‘these contracts are untenable given budgetary constraints’ to ‘you have no right to bargain collectively’ requires a union-busting–rather than mere budget-fixing–agenda.

And the Wisconsin example demonstrates what is wrong even with answering ‘yes’ to that question above. For Wisconsin shows us that the introduction of the financial crisis is not a ‘red herring.’ Consider the following reasons for its budgetary problems:

Falling tax revenue resulting from the recession is the greatest culprit of Wisconsin’s budget woes — between 2008 and 2009, state tax revenues fell over 7%.

Since July 2009, there has been an estimated dip in revenues of $200 million annually; the state saw little growth in tax revenues in 2010.

Unemployment rose more than 4 percentage points between 2007 and 2010, forcing more Wisconsin residents on Medicaid and causing state Medicaid costs to rise.

A series of tax cuts passed since 2003 that cumulatively represent $3.7 billion and, by 2013, make up a $800 million-per-year reduction in tax revenues.

In addition, this year agency budget requests will rise $2.9 billion — nearly two-thirds of which is for Medicaid, with much of that amount associated with replacing one-time federal Medicaid revenues the state received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Look at those reasons: falling tax revenue because of the recession, tax cuts, rising unemployment, rising healthcare costs. Sound familiar? The Scott Walker solution: Bust the unions! It is the transparency of the union-busting agenda that produced the Wisconsin protests. Those protesting were not simply rejecting a particular contract; they knew that the larger Walker agenda was to get rid of unions. (Melon’s comment acknowledges that budgetary problems are better understood by paying attention to the larger economic picture that unions are embedded in.) So, again, to my interlocutors: if public sector union workers’ contract terms are untenable, then why not  revise them? Or perhaps seek to collect adequate tax revenues by not enacting tax cuts? Why take away collective bargaining?

JR seems to suggest that because  50% of American workers work for the government, there is no need to worry about the ‘profit imperative crushing them’. Does this mean that public sector workers need not–should not–form unions? But the central point is maintaining worker rights in the workplace, in the face of employer power, via representation by a collective entity. It is the imbalance in power between employer and individual employee that is at crucial, and which warrants the formation of workers into collective bargaining units.

Non-unionized labor is cheaper; that is why it will always be more popular with employers. The question is whether in seeking to pay that lower cost, by the device of getting rid of collective bargaining, the employer is actually seeking something far more valuable: the ability to regulate the workplace to his heart’s content.

13 comments on “Misery Needs Company, Contd.

  1. Jr says:

    Samir,

    I wish you the best. I do suggest that unions have made some mistakes in primaries, and it has hurt them politically. Wisconsin is a classic case of that. I respect your activism and wish you the best, this is simply too fanatical for me to continue engaging.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      JR: Thanks for your comments. I’m still open to discussing this with you when we meet next so that I can get a better handle on what you think is the appropriate place for unions. I do not dispute that unions are suffering politically – I think we just disagree on why that might be. Part of it is their own poor management, part of it might be general hostility to the idea of a unionized workplace.

      • JR says:

        Generally, when we do that, we should also have a discussion of “rights” I consider my personal “rights” to be as follows:

        I have the right to live as a free man
        I have a right to protect my family
        I have a right to go out and try to provide for my family.

        These are to me God-given rights that no man provides for me, and no man should take away.

        I personally think that anything else that I want to happen, I have to make happen, rather than rely on anyone else. I certainly don’t think that anybody owes me anything more than this, and it’s important to me to remember that I have to go out and make it happen, that I should never expect it to be given to me.

        I don’t think that I am owed a job. I am not owed safety at the hands of anyone else. I am not owed food or shelter These are things that I need to go make happen myself, and if I don’t, I am the one to blame. This has served me quite well.

        I think fundamentally our differences might begin here. I would never want to sacrifice my freedom to live any other way.

        I don’t have any “due process,” I have watched literally hundreds of people get fired. I have kept the same job for 15 years, and I work very hard to do so.

        I look forward to catching up with you.

  2. Daniel Kaufman says:

    Samir, I am entirely pro-Union and pro-collective bargaining. The problem, today, is that the contracts that were the products of that bargaining in the past are unsustainable today, especially as the population ages.

    –DK

  3. Melon says:

    I don’t think collective bargaining is something you can effectively put an end to. It’s the single power of the collective, after all. Of course, once we dismantle the unions and involve everyone in this weird mindfuck Stockholm-syndrome unions-are-bad, powerful-corporate-interests are good thing, it’ll take a while to reinvent the idea of unionization. But as far as re-negotiating union contracts to be weaker is actually just whittling them down incrementally, it seems like it’s part and parcel of the same thing. I’m in favor of a more radical, top-down approach that reconceptualizes the legal structure behind corporations so that their internal “morality” is based on something other than maximizing profit – but I obviously live in a dream universe, where legislators are benevolently paternalistic and possess some kind of special omniscience as to what “good” is. Also, money is fictional and economics is corrupt bullshit? Yeah.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Melon,

      Interesting point – that explicit dismantling of unions via Walker-style legislation or just progressive weakening of contracts (because of austerity forced upon us by financial disasters elsewhere) could have the same effect. As for the second point, it is a hard thing to change the orientation of the corporation especially as we are socialized to think of it as operating in a morality-free zone.

  4. Dan Kaufman says:

    JR:

    I would argue that your list of natural rights entails a lot more “social support” than you give credit, especially in an economy as interconnected and as quickly evolving as ours.

    A basic premise of moral philosophy is that if you will the ends, you will the means. I would maintain that willing the ends described by your three natural rights, involves willing a lot of means, which most would describe as “socialist” in nature. I also believe that this is more true today than it would have been, say, in the 19th century, simply because of the “in-flux” nature of the economy and, as already mentioned, the hyper-interconnectedness that is the result of globalism.

  5. JR says:

    Dan,

    I don’t consider something that is contingent on someone else as a right. I can’t have a right to something that someone else must sacrifice in order for me to have it. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that we are interconnected, or live in a community. We do. Anyone that knows me, really knows me, finds me to be as generous as anybody. I routinely give to charities and will continue. I also contribute my time, volunteering to coach multiple teams in a variety of sports.

    I agree with the essence of what you say, which I believe is that we are all in this together, and my lifestyle reflects that.

    I will always believe in contributing to society, I just think it’s a mistake for anyone at anytime to be confused into thinking that these things are “owed,” or “entitled.” That’s where I think the mistakes begin.

    We may just have a different definition of “rights,” but I usually begin there, because progressive/socialists begin a lot of arguments based on “rights” that I don’t think are rights at all, because it’s something that must be taken from someone else.

    I’m not really sure what you mean to be honest, when you say that my means would be socialist in nature. I don’t think that I have a socialist bone in my body, thankfully. I understand that we live in a society where many of these things are provided for me regardless of what I do or don’t ask for, like national security, or even local security. I agree that they are provided, I am simply stating that it’s not a natural right, in my opinion.

    The reason that I bring up the issue of rights is because of some statements that I hear. “I have a right to a college education.” —– really? is there a college education tree that bears diplomas? Or is it something manufactured through the toil of teachers? do they expect to be paid? if so, who PAYS for your “right?” “I have a right to healthcare.” Really? is there a healthcare tree? if this is paid for, then does that person have a negative right? If you have a right to spend somebody else’s money, then what is the terminology for the liability that the other person has to record?

    If others have a right to free healthcare and a college degree, then, by reason, I am born with negative rights. So at my birth, as I first leave the womb, how many negative rights has the government imposed upon me?

    This is the fundamental discussion, the role of government in society, and the redistribution of wealth. While I have tremendous conviction on my opinions, i do understand that they are only that, and that others (especially in the northeast, and in particular, Brooklyn) will likely see a larger role for government.

    I just like to see how people define rights. The level of entitlement that we see in this country is concerning to me, and looking to Europe, as you referenced, I get concerned. Portugal had a lot of “rights” too. Hell, they hardly had to work! now they have something like a 25% high school graduation rate. Why go to school? Why not live on the dole? what is the point of the effort?

    progressive tax rates? time to talk about the laffer curve. That it exists is a certainty, the sweet spot, remains open to debate.

    Typically, progressives (see Krugman) go for inflation. Does it help monetize debt? Of course it does, especially as a reserve currency. England did it for 10 years before they were no longer a reserve currency. It’s the most regressive tax that there is. Trust me, from a selfish perspective, inflation is great for me. rather than paying a progressive rate, it’s flat. And, on top of that, I can position for it. As we speak, I am planning to lever myself, knowing full well that inflation will reduce that burden handsomely, and the risk assets will perform well due to a devalued dollar. (how many poor folks living paycheck to paycheck can do the same? ) hedge fund billionaires LOVE inflation.

    I just bristle at the word “right” in certain contexts.

    I found that some of the statements here about how everyone should want the same deal as unions, and how we need more vacation, etc., they just in no way address the fact that in this increasingly gloablized workplace, as you describe it, we are in competition with other companies that have lower unit labor costs. This doesn’t go away.

    And China is getting tired of us believing that are “rights” are something that they are supposed to pay for ad infinitum.

    If your point is that we are part of a community, I agree, and my actions have always and will always support this. (These are VOLUNTARY actions, of a private citizen.)

    So before you call me heartless, I am a generous, giving person, and I think that in the LONG run, less entitlement is the most utilitarian approach. I routinely give to prospect park, brooklyn botanical gardens, various cancer foundations, crossfit teams doing fight gone bad, and as I mentioned, very active in youth sports.

    I just think that the best system, the soundest system, in the long run, is one with less entitlement and more incentive.

    • KJ says:

      I’ll be glad to go ahead and call you heartless, actually. The corollary to your libertarian utopia is, “And anyone born with disabilities should just die. Those people aren’t entitled to anything, since they can’t work to make it happen (the lazy slobs).”

      • JR says:

        I find it to be a staggering amount of hubris to believe that you can alter the laws of nature in any way other than a rounding error. Disabled people are not lazy, lazy people are lazy. They become lazy in part by being given things that they have not earned. It does not help, it hurts, and it atrophies so many skills that it becomes structural.

  6. JR says:

    KJ,

    You can call me whatever you like, but the snark and hyperbole of your comments render them finge and irrelevant.

  7. […] I’ve noted in my posts on labor unions (here; here;  here; here; here), there is a curious rejection underway–in the strangest of places, […]

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