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This is the second in a series on the importance and durability of conservative successes since Reagan took office and since Obama lost his supermajority; we do win battles and they can stay won.
Though FDR created the modern Democratic Party as a diverse array of government entities and sales pitches to attract various identity groups, its heart was legally-empowered unions. In what might be considered the first individual mandate, Americans under a pro-union government would be forced to pay dues to a third party who would spend it, in part, on getting Democrats elected. There’s a raft of ways in which that system was enhanced; since 1931, for instance, Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws have meant that government had to overpay for contracts, with much of the surplus going to unions, who were also helped by the additional red tape. Because people rarely give much of their own free will, declared union spending on the 2012 cycle topped $1.7 billion, while the Obama campaign ($0.5 billion), DNC ($0.3 billion), and declared outside spending on the Presidential race ($0.1 billion) didn’t compare.
But it’s more than money. Unions are the Democrats’ answer for why America is great. All the wonderful changes of the twentieth century, the incredible wealth enjoyed by our middle class, the massively superior quality of life we have over our parents … all these are explained, in their telling, by unions. The roll free markets serve in conservative mythology (and in reality) are credited to unions in the Left’s narrative. They can also point to unions as a source for social capital and the guarantors of individual rights, making them not merely the purported engine of economic growth, but also the Left’s church.
What Democrats could never do through direct government control, they achieved, for a while, through unions. People complain about regulatory overhead today — and the complaint is just — but our situation is still greatly superior to the awfulness of the schlerotic unionized industries of the 1970s. Reagan didn’t just lift the boot of direct government control off our neck, but he helped lift the violence, the inflexible and cumbersome union rules, and the sheer corruption of the union system.
Private Sector Union Membership
Before Reagan took over, private sector union membership was at 23 percent. Before Scott Brown took office, it was at 7.2 percent. By last year, it had fallen to 6.6 percent. Reagan was brutal to the unions, Bush 41 followed up, and it took a while for membership to look as if it might stabilize in Clinton’s second term. Bush 43 had an excellent Labor Secretary in Elaine Chao, who I hope would be available for the next administration, and who killed the unions’ brief hope under Clinton. More recently, Obama put a ton of effort into this issue; his two biggest achievements were Obamacare and the Stimulus, and the latter was primarily a union issue (the auto bailouts helped, too). But even with Obama’s NRLB, unions being the key priority of the Democrats, and an inspirational president who got his start working for unions, the relentless drive toward freedom has continued.
That 6.6 percent figure from 2014 is set to fall further, too. In 1958, there were 18 right to work states. In 1963, Wyoming brought that to 19. Louisiana (1976), Idaho (1985), and Texas in (1993!), brought us to 22, and then there was stasis. We weren’t falling back, but we weren’t gaining, either. Other than Nevada, these were all states with weak unions, anyway. We’d never taken a union-loving state until 2012, when Mitch Daniels moved Indiana. Last year, both West Virginia and Michigan became right to work states. This year, so did Wisconsin and we’re set to see some more states fall to our conquest, with none moving in the opposite direction.
Private sector unions aren’t just the mythology the Left credits with essentially everything good that happened in America in the 20th Century. They’ve also been the Democratic Party’s best shock troops ever since the Klan failed them, they’ve been their best fundraisers, and they’ve been the reason that white men and traditionally-minded women could be proud members of the Democratic Party. And we’re grinding them to dust.
Public Sector Union Membership
It’s often said that public sector union membership is picking up the slack, but there are many fewer government workers (22 million) than there are private sector workers (120 million). More importantly, public sector unions aren’t increasing their unionization rate: they’ve merely held their numbers constant while private unions of crumpled. Public sector union membership was at 35.9 percent before Reagan took office, went up under him to 36.6 percent, was at 37.4 percent when Scott Brown won, and is at 35.7 percent now. Wisconsin and Indiana have led a charge against them, too, obviously (I bet no one has read this far without knowing about Wisconsin’s Act 10). Along with the right to work reforms, these measures will only further unions’ decline.
The Future if a Republican Wins in 2016
There’s more to follow; Scott Walker may be the only candidate to have a solid labor reform platform and an indisputable record of achievement, but he’s not the only candidate on the right side of the issue. Bush and Rubio fought teacher’s unions indirectly in Florida. Kasich has a record for fighting, if not defeating, unions. Our Congressional leadership is more anti-labor than any Congressional leadership in a half century. Jim Geraghty talks about the way that Huckabee immediately trashed Walker’s plan for being excessively anti-labor, but Jim’s excellent piece misses the magnitude of the change. We used to have a lot of labor-friendly Republicans. We just don’t any more. The last time we had a majority, we couldn’t pass Davis Bacon reform because labor could count on Santorum, Kit Bond, Mike DeWine, George Voinovich, Mel Martinez, Gordon Smith, Ted Stevens, Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, and Lincoln Chaffee. They’re all gone now, and they haven’t been replaced. Sen. Susan Collins is a moderate, but even she’s better on labor than any of those guys. There’s simply no place in today’s elected GOP for Huckabee’s identity politics only style of Republicanism that devoid of conservatism, or at least there wasn’t in 2010, 2012, or 2014. Even this year, I don’t believe Huckabee could get elected as governor or to congress.
Walker’s approach in Wisconsin was to liberate workers as a way to cut budgets, and his federal plan follows this model. This means that it can be passed with reconciliation. Unless we lose five seats in the Senate, any president can follow Walker’s model. He puts it better than I could, but basically he would: 1) Remove the NRLB as a way of immediately undoing all of Obama’s bad labor rules and to divert mediation to a more efficient system (the one used by railway workers, for historical reasons); 2) Enact a raft of reforms to make it harder for federal unions to raise money for politics, protect whistleblowers, make every state right to work (with the ability for states to opt out of that); and 3) Most importantly, repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, a law originally passed in the 1931 to keep African Americans out of the Northern states and Mexicans out of border states, and that now cripples American infrastructure, actively increases inefficiency, and provides massive cash payments to Democrats. A Davis-Bacon repeal is straight-up cash left on the table, even before you look at its moral costs. The gig economy — Uber and such — creates a space in which the elimination of labor as a non-trivial force becomes ever more plausible.
The Future If We Lose
Regardless, we shouldn’t pop the champagne yet. If we lose, the NLRB rules will take hold and stick. McDonald’s, for instance, would be far more likely to unionize. Other expansion seems likely. Obama’s reforms have been delayed, but they’re ready to bite, and a Clinton (or Sanders) Administration would give them the space to expand unions. A Supreme Court with Kennedy replaced by a 100% liberal would reverse decisions like Harris v. Quinn, which would mean that home-care assistants could be forced to join unions. And then, Uber drivers. And a host of other guys who won’t even know that there’s an election on, but will be notified by text message that they’ve chosen to join a union. The gig economy expanded under the wrong SCOTUS and the current NRLB could see massive expansions of the involuntarily unionized. Without Congress passing a new law, union membership would skyrocket to unheard of levels: 40, or even 50 percent of the country wouldn’t be impossible.
With that, we wouldn’t just lose general elections, although that would be one consequence. Union funding would go back to not merely dwarfing the other sources, but doing so to an absurd degree, and then rise beyond that to unprecedented height. Part of the impact would be that we would start losing primary elections to friends of labor again.
2016 looks set to be the election that decides the electoral and business future of the country for decades to come. Both victory and loss would have irrevocable and decisive effects.