Check out the story in page A4 of Thursday's Wall Street Journal, evidently not available online.
"Three Republican governors hit unions," the headline says, and the lead runs: "Several Republican governors are trying to weaken organized labor in the one place it has remained strong: representing public employees."
The three Republican governors in question are Matt Blunt of Missouri, Bob Ehrlich of Maryland, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana. They are said to be following the example of Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky.
Back in the 1950s, nearly 35 percent of private sector employees were union members and not much more than zero percent of public employees were. Today, about 8 percent of private sector employees are union members and something between 30 and 40 percent of public employees are. That's an enormous change.
The big increase in public employee union membership started in the 1960s. I remember reading then a critical account of that trend, I believe by the eminent (then and now) political scientist James Q. Wilson. If public employee union members, the account argued, can elect their managements, then the adversarial relationship assumed between labor and management will no longer obtainand the union members, with an open line to the taxpayers, will make out like banditti. I wanted to believe this was not so, at the time, and tried to make all kinds of arguments against itbut never really succeeded. Now we see the consequences, for the taxpayers and ultimately for the voters.
For the taxpayers the consequences have been huge pay and benefit increases over the years. You can make, on neutral principles, arguments for thesebut if you do, please don't spend too much time with the public employees in question, or you'll end up sadly disillusioned. Public employee unions have a vested interest in getting higher pay and less accountability for their members, which is a very good deal for everybody but the taxpayers. And since they're a highly motivated and mobilizable constituency, they have a good chance at prevailing over the more amorphous and inchoate constituency of taxpayers in a given election.
Understandably the public employee unions have tended to give most of their supportand they can generate huge sums from the dues they extract from public employees' paychecksto Democratic politicians. Unfortunately for the public employee unions, Republicans have been winning most elections over the past decade.
Some Republicans are happy to cave in and give the public employee unions what they want. But some of themBlunt, Ehrlich, and Daniels are the ones identified by the Wall Street Journalare not. It is one of the ironies of politics today that rich and well-educated liberals, preening themselves on their selflessness and idealism, provide so much in the way of funds and raw votes to Democratic candidates who support public employee unions who extract more from low-income taxpayers and, thanks to their demands that their members not be held accountable, deliver less in the way to low- and middle-income constituents than the nonunionized civil servants of a generation or two ago.
The unions in turn support the symbolic cultural liberal positions that these affluent liberals hold so dear. But now this happy coincidence of interests looks like it's being upset by crass Republicans who think that taxpayers should get accountable government for their dollars. Too bad.