Unions are Important
Jeff and I have been going back and forth on unions—and it looks like we’ve finally gotten to the crux of the issue. It’s a question of influence.
Jeff lists a variety of examples where the SEIU seems to have benefitted from it’s close support of the Obama administration.. (As discussed earlier, the SEIU spent a lot of resources helping Obama in the election—though any implication that the SEIU gave millions to the Obama campaign is false.) Jeff concludes:
SEUI bought A LOT of access. Oh, and as noted above, it also bought some administration positions.
I don’t entirely agree. The SEIU was the first big union to back Obama. Compared to the other unions, the SEIU and Obama have a lot of common ground. If Andy Stern became Obama’s go to guy on unions by being there before everybody else, he did a good job of figuring out how to position himself at the right time. And if Obama puts some labor guys on the National Labor Relations Board … isn’t that entirely proper?
But Jeff’s larger point is exactly right. While the SEIU may not have bought the positions—but they certainly expected a quid pro quo for their extensive support. You can tell that much from Andy Sterns braggadocio. (Though I would interpret it as Stern trying to justify such extreme costs.) While I think the Obama campaign drew a broad enough level of support that it doesn’t owe a lot of debts to special interests, there’s no question that we have a tradition in the country of giving ambassadorship and such to big supporters. (This has happened less in the current administration—but I won’t say it hasn’t happen at all.) Money can buy access—particularly in smaller elections.
Jeff and I agree that the ability of a small group of people to wield out-sized power due to political donations or political horse-trading is a serious problem. Public sector unions are neither the only nor the most powerful power-brokers. (Incidentally, the SEIU is not a public sector union. And frankly, if public sector unions really wielded outsized influence, we’d pay teachers better.) And it’s not the only group expecting influence for campaign support. And, as Jeff implies, the SEIU brass may sometimes be more concerned with advancing itself than with its 1.5 million members, just as corporate officers might not always represent the shareholders. Too much money in politics from too few people causes problems. This problem is offset by large numbers of small donations. A healthy middle class is critical to a healthy democracy.
We’re losing that middle class. Unions are preventing it from disappearing entirely. We need a solid base of middle income folk who produce, consume, pay taxes, and have enough power to assert themselves politically, but not enough power to lord over everybody else.