The U-Word

by Neil H. Buchanan

Conservatives are eager to attack plenty of things that liberals are willing to defend, and vice versa.  Abortion rights, climate policies, progressive taxes, and so on are all the subjects of fierce debate by both sides.  There is, however, one huge topic on which the two sides are notably uneven in their passion.

What is the one thing that every conservative is eager to attack yet too many liberals are oh-so-hesitant to defend?  Unions.  To conservatives, labor unions are a reliable bete noire, even though their most passionate base of voters is ironically made much worse off because of the decline of unions.  Unions exist in the conservative imagination as an embodiment of everything bad about liberalism.  For many liberals, however, the response to attacks on unions is to uncomfortably clear their throats and change the subject.

Unsurprisingly, this has led us to the brink of an abyss, with declining union membership amid a wave of anti-union laws in state after state (even in the formerly labor-dominated state of Michigan).  Even worse, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to deal a near-death blow to public sector unions -- the only part of the labor movement that still has significant membership and power, given how successfully Republicans have attacked private-sector unions -- in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

This asymmetry in conservatives' anti-union passion and liberals' half-hearted defense of organized labor shows up over and over again, and it is worth thinking about not only for the economic harm that it causes to nearly everyone but also for its consequences to the political system.

Two recent op-eds in the nation's top newspapers demonstrate this unbalanced approach to unions by conservatives and liberals.  The Washington Post, facing attacks from conservatives as the avatar of "fake news," has obediently decided that it needs to add more conservatives to its op-ed roster.  One very recent addition is a right-libertarian career blogger with no particular expertise but who does not let that stop her from making confident assertions about everything.

My most recent Verdict column addresses one of this columnist's first efforts for The Post, in which she attempts to explain why American cities have problems with affordable housing.  My column is mostly concerned with the incredibly weak economic arguments that the op-ed provides, to which I have nothing to add here.  But the op-ed is also interesting when it lays out its litany of supposed errors that Democrats have made that purportedly explain the housing crisis.  Here is the key paragraph, in list form:
(1) "Prevailing-wage laws to keep union members happy."

(2) "Strict environmental review, and generous rights to sue, to please conservationists."

(3) "Community review standards that ... give affluent communities the ability to limit economic diversity"

(4) "Community review standards that ... also let gentrifying neighborhoods extract concessions from developers for long-term residents."

(5) "Health and safety codes."

(6) "Earthquake-proofing."

(7) "And so on down the line."
In my column, I have some fun with the author's dismissive rhetorical strategy ("keep union members happy," "please conservationists," attacking lawyers indirectly by mentioning "generous rights to sue").  I also note (with a nod to "Seinfeld"'s famous "yada yada yada") that a list that actually includes health and safety codes and earthquake-proofing among the legal restrictions that cities supposedly need to "trim back" ought to make us wonder what could possibly be included in "so on down the line."  What else is too onerous?  Water and sewage standards?  Street lights?  Paved roads?

For present purposes, however, I want to note the simple fact that union-bashing is the very first item on the anti-Democratic hit list.  The author provides no context or facts, and she does nothing further with the argument, but the go-to villain is right there out front.  Unions.  It is apparently so self-evident that she does not even bother to explain.

By contrast, consider the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who used to be that paper's economics and business editor.  Leonhardt is certainly a liberal, as even a cursory examination of his columns will confirm.  And he is willing to talk about ideas that would be heavy political lifts, many of which he included in an excellent column that he wrote recently, "A Time for Big Economic Ideas."

In that column, Leonhardt provides an inspiring list of ideas that would truly transform the American economy in positive ways.  He correctly argues that "[t]he usual answers — technocratic changes to the tax code and safety net — are not good enough."  He also refreshingly rejects calls for Democrats to move to the center, especially given how popular liberal policy ideas actually are among the public.

He notes: "Most voters want to raise taxes on the rich and corporations. They favor generous Medicare and Social Security, expanded Medicaid, more financial aid for college, a higher minimum wage and a bigger government role in job creation."  He endorses "a federal jobs program, putting people to work earning $15 an hour on vital projects like infrastructure and child care," and various health care-related proposals.

Most interestingly, Leonhardt calls for "a strong response to growing corporate power and consolidation" including "new antimonopoly policies" and "something called wage boards, where companies and workers would negotiate over industrywide pay."

All of these are promising ideas, but what I find most interesting about Leonhardt's framing is that he seems to have gone out of his way never to use the word "union."  The link that he provides describes "wage boards" as "industry-level collective bargaining for all workers" and has the word "union" allover the associated article, but somehow that never makes it into The New York Times.

The innocent explanation for this, of course, is that Leonhardt is deciding not to pick a fight that he does not need to pick.  If many people fulminate even at the thought of unions, why mention them?  But that, of course, is the point.  The Post's new conservative columnist draws from a well of anti-union presumptions and thus reinforces them, while a liberal columnist says, "Gee, unions are too divisive, so it's better not to mention them."  For a guy who is willing to say things that challenge people to reject the conventional wisdom, this choice is puzzling, to put it generously.

And it might not be merely a matter of strategic rhetoric.  Leonhardt is among the group of liberal columnists who frequently attack teachers' unions (his colleague Frank Bruni being even worse) -- a position that has become untenable in an era when even red-state teachers are calling successful strikes to force Republican legislatures to provide non-poverty pay to teachers and, to note just one example, to provide updated textbooks that include the names of the three most recent presidents.

The problem is, as Eric Levitz noted earlier this year in New York magazine, "Democrats Paid a Huge Price for Letting Unions Die."  Recent research concludes that anti-union right-to-work laws have decreased Democrats' share of the presidential vote in affected states by 3.5 percent, and the effect on down-ballot races for Congress and state legislatures is obvious.

Are we going to be able to enact any of the long list of wonderful policies that Leonhardt touts without addressing the declining political power of organized labor?  Maybe, but it would be a lot easier with the support of a robust labor movement.  Liberals need to get over their nervousness and understand the key role that unions must play in the revival of both our economy and our political system.