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Stop the unions (well … sort of)

BY SHAWN GUDE | FEBRUARY 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Barry Goldwater and I don’t agree on much.

Goldwater, a former Arizona senator and lion of the political right, favored a muscular, bellicose foreign policy, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and supported slashing the social safety net.

But, as Wisconsin public employees resist GOP attempts to curtail their collective bargaining rights, I’d like to highlight one thing the late senator and I agree upon: the undue influence of unions and corporations in elections and, thus, the political process.

This isn’t to say government workers shouldn’t be unionized (or have the inviolate right to collectively bargain). As the son of two public-employee union members, I’ve been the benefactor of the increased economic security commensurate with union membership. And it’s been heartening to watch Wisconsin workers and their supporters turn out en masse against Gov. Scott Walker’s abhorrent proposal. Too often, organized labor is denigrated and held in disrepute; Wisconsin workers’ principled stand has been inspiring.

While detractors are right to point out the inherent difference between public and private unions, the employer-employee dynamic exists in government workplaces as well; unions are one of the main rectifiers of that power imbalance.

But back to Goldwater.

The 1964 presidential hopeful wrote in his classic treatise The Conscience of a Conservative: “In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals and individuals alone.”

Goldwater’s proposal would be difficult to enact, both politically and constitutionally. Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t want to dam their respective money streams, and such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment (UI law Professor Randall Bezanson confirmed as much via e-mail).

Seemingly insuperable hurdles aside, though, banning corporate and union election spending would be a boon for the political process — both for substantive and optic reasons.

As a rule, power should be diffuse; concentrations of power undermine individuals’ agency and, consequently, democratic citizenship. When weighty economic groups enter the electoral process, they often do just this. In addition, constricting labor unions and corporations would allow lawmakers to make decisions based on their conception of the public good — not because of the financial cudgels of unions and corporations.

The paradigmatic example of public-interest perversion is the role of prison-guard unions in perpetuating the mass incarceration status quo. Organized labor has every right to fight for better working conditions, pay, and a more democratic workplace. But their sometimes-narrow political interests (in this case, supporting inhumane policies that bolster prison expansion) shouldn’t be confused with the public interest.

And then there’s the appearance of corruption.

Sure, Democrats are influenced by union money. It’s a lot of money, after all: Five of the 10 highest contributors since 1989 are unions, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. AFSCME alone contributed more than $43 million over that stretch, the lion’s share of which went to Democrats.

But doesn’t Democrats’ ideological affinity with unions predispose them to support many union-backed policies already? Most Democrats support pro-union policies because they’re, well, pro-union. In this sense, then, barring union contributions would remove the appearance of outsized influence and would only enhance the probity of labor. No longer could critics charge that Democratic politicians were unduly affected by union contributions.

The public might then be more apt to support pro-union policies, free of the taint of perceived corruption. Maybe then, for example, they’d reject Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s anti-union agenda (or even favor changing Iowa’s “right to work” status).

Many fellow union supporters would likely upbraid me for getting behind such a proposal. And, with declining membership and constant rear-guard attacks, I wouldn’t necessarily fault them.

But Goldwater-esque campaign finance reform could be beneficial — both for organized labor and the larger public.


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