The protesting public school teachers with fake doctor's notes swarming the Capitol building in Madison, Wis., insist that Gov. Scott Walker is hell-bent on "union busting." Walker denies that his effort to reform public-sector unions in Wisconsin is anything more than an honest attempt at balancing the state's books.
I hope the protesters are right. Public unions have been a 50-year mistake.
A crucial distinction has been lost in the debate over Walker's proposals: Government unions are not the same thing as private-sector unions.
Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It's been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners' lives. Before unionization and many New Deal-era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.
Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair's famous schoolhouse sequel to "The Jungle"? No? Don't feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.
Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.
The argument for public unionization wasn't moral, economic or intellectual. It was rankly political.
Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic Party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in "The Trouble with Public Sector Unions," in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.
The plan worked perfectly -- too perfectly. Public union membership skyrocketed, and government union support for the party of government skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.