UNION BUSTING….LA Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik writes today about the latest in citizen governance here in the Golden State: an initiative that would require all public employee unions to obtain annual written permission from their members before contributing money to political candidates or groups.

The campaign’s spearhead is Lewis K. Uhler, a Sacramento-area land developer with impeccable credentials as a right-wing anti-tax crusader.

….For all that Uhler describes the lot of government workers in terms that evoke a chain gang in a ’30s movie, the fact is that virtually no public employee in California is compelled to join a union to get or keep a job. Nor can any be compelled to pay even a dime of dues or fees for political activities with which he or she disagrees. With very few exceptions, every public employee already has the legal right to refuse to join a union, to object to a union’s expenditures for any purpose other than contract negotiations and contract administration, and to not pay for such expenditures or even receive a rebate.

…. Uhler wasn’t up to speed on all these points when I called him this week.

No doubt, since Uhler is just a front for the folks who are really behind this initiative: “the Small Business Action Committee, which derives its reported funding from such mom ‘n’ pop outfits as tobacco company Philip Morris USA; Ameriquest Capital, a lender to low-credit borrowers that has been investigated for fraud by authorities in as many as 25 states; Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; Irvine Co.; and Shorenstein Co., a big commercial real estate developer.”

I’ll admit that public employee unions are not one of my hot buttons ? I figure they can mostly take care of themselves these days. My sympathies are more with organizing efforts in service industries: trying to win higher pay and better working conditions for janitors, nursing home attendants, Wal-Mart clerks, and so forth.

But the right wing never rests, and for any of my liberal readers who harbor suspicion of labor unions as an “old” liberal cause ? just another one of those special interest groups that Democrats are always pandering to ? ask yourself this: why are conservatives so hellbent on breaking them? Why did Ronald Reagan fire those air traffic controllers in 1981? Why did George Bush make union busting a key issue in the 2002 midterm election? Why the relentless opposition to using card checks to organize workers in new industries? Why the continuing demonization of unions from a party that’s otherwise so conscientious about building its appeal to the working and middle classes?

It’s because unions are the only truly effective check on the sine qua non of modern conservatism: corporate power. For all their faults ? and they have plenty, just as corporations do ? unions are the only organizations that have the power to bargain effectively for the interests of the middle class. Union power in the private sector began to wane in the 1970s, and it’s not a coincidence that this was exactly the same time that middle class wages began to stagnate, CEO pay began to skyrocket, and income inequality began increasing inexorably.

Many liberals seem to believe that these grim trends can be fought with tax and regulatory policy, but those are blunt instruments with plenty of drawbacks and unforeseen consequences. Collective bargaining, which is essentially a market based approach in which the government’s job is simply to make sure that unions have enough authority to ensure serious bargaining and then get out of the way, is far more reliable, effective, and flexible. It actually works, which is why conservatives have always hated unions so bitterly.

Despite this, there are plenty of cocktail party “new” Democrats who blithely think of unions as just another dinosaur special interest unsuited to politics in the 21st century. They should think again. Republicans understand the stakes a lot better ? and so should we.

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