Friday Follow-Up: Pensions And Public Employee Unions

I thought this was an excellent meeting.  Fifteen people including some new (Tom, Kirsten, Michael), a lecture on public pensions and San Diego’s pension problem from Roxanne, SEIU guests, politics, philosophy, etc.  Here are some follow-up articles and links.

But, first, a chart.  From the CA Legislative Analysts Office (p.27), it shows the rising costs of retirement benefits for state employees.  Note that this is state employees only, not local.

Second, here’s a crisp summary (linked to a few weeks ago) of the point that Ernie was making about Liberalism abandoning the working class:

In the 60s, at the same time that labor unions begin to decline, liberal money and energy starts to flow strongly toward “postmaterialist” issues: civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, etc. These are the famous “interest groups” that take over the Democratic Party during the subsequent decades. 

At about the same time, business interests take stock of the country’s anti-corporate mood and begin to pool their resources to push for generic pro-business policies in a way they never had before. Conservative think tanks start to press a business-friendly agenda and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce start to fundraise on an unprecedented scale. This level of persistent, organizational energy is something new.

Unions, already in decline, are the particular focus of business animus. As they decline, they leave a vacuum. There’s no other nationwide organization dedicated to persistently fighting for middle class economic issues and no other nationwide organization that’s able to routinely mobilize working class voters to support or oppose specific federal policies. (In both items #2 and #3, note the focus on persistent organizational pressure. This is key.)

With unions in decline and political campaigns becoming ever more expensive, Democrats eventually decide they need to become more business friendly as well. This is a vicious circle: the more unions decline, the more that Democrats turn to corporate funding to survive. There is, in the end, simply no one left who’s fighting for middle class economic issues in a sustained and organized way. Conversely, there are lots of extremely well-funded and determined organizations fighting for the interests of corporations and the rich.

The result is exactly what you’d expect. With liberal money and energy focused mostly on non-economic concerns, the country moves steadily leftward on social issues. With conservative money and energy focused mostly on the interests of corporations and the rich—and with no one really fighting back—the country moves steadily rightward on economic issues. Thomas Frank’s famous working-class Kansans who vote against their own economic interests are easily explained. It’s not just that conservatives appeal to them on social grounds, it’s that there’s no one left to really make the economic case to them in the first place. And even if anyone did, they have little reason to believe that Democrats would actually follow through in concrete ways. So why not vote on abortion and gay rights instead?

I think this account ignores a huge reason why the Democrats began to lose the working class about that time: Racial backlash over civil rights and Black economic progress.  But, the role racial backlash played was almost entirely limited ot the South.  It’s true!  In the last 40 years, the Democratic vote among the white working class has cratered in the South, but has declined by only one percent outside of it.  Really  

Lastly, here are some articles on American labor unions’ efforts to have a  global impact — and to compensate for their powerlessness by partnering with foreign labor unions. 

  1. The State Of Unionism In The Age Of Globalization.
  2. One Union’s Efforts To Internationalize (SEIU)
  3. It’s not the culture, it’s the legal system!  When European companies come here, they adopt anti-union tactics just like American companies do.

BTW, The American Prospect has fantastic special reports on just about every issue we discuss.   See this list of all of them (especially how to improve low-wage jobs, but also education, taxes, foreign policy, etc.).  Each special report has about 5-10 crisp, fact-based articles.


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