PUTTING THE ATTACKS ON UNIONS IN CONTEXT…. As Republicans at the state and federal level become increasingly aggressive in targeting unions and their members, the rhetoric from the right is that this is born of necessity. When there are budget shortfalls, the GOP argument goes, public-sector workers and their families should shoulder the burden.

But it’s become quite obvious in recent weeks that the argument is about far more than this. Indeed, in Wisconsin, where the dispute is arguably the most intense, labor agreed to all kinds of compensation concessions, only to see Gov. Scott Walker (R) insist that collective-bargaining rights have to be abandoned, too.

Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson, co-authors of the brilliant and powerful “Winner-Take-All Politics” (now out in paperback), have a must-read op-ed in the Washington Post today, offering valuable context to the right’s assault on labor as a societal institution.

It’s tough to excerpt — really, just read the whole thing — but the Hacker/Pierson case explains that unions operate “as a counterweight to the demands of corporations and Wall Street in the corridors of power.” Working families lack substantial financial capital, and labor helps level the playing field, which in turn has brought benefits that strengthened the middle class.

A stronger role for unions has meant less inequality, here and throughout the industrialized world. (It’s not a coincidence that labor’s decline has led to economic inequalities unseen in the U.S. in generations.) Labor has also been the institution to stand against reckless deregulation, including the steps that led to the 2008 global crash.

Powerful interests’ influence has grown as labor has suffered, which in turn created a governmental agenda “that tilted tax and economic policies away from middle-class Americans.”

Today, the recession has eased but has hardly disappeared. Yet the political climate has already swung toward premature austerity, with Republicans demanding cuts in spending that could, according to multiple estimates, cost many hundreds of thousands of jobs. In poll after poll, citizens say that unemployment is the nation’s top problem; that tax cuts for the most well-off should expire; that Wall Street, not public-sector workers, precipitated the economic crisis; and that Medicare and Social Security should be preserved largely as they are.

It may seem ironic that unions are under attack when Washington seems most disconnected from the economic needs of the middle class. But that’s not an irony; it’s a strategy. Critics of unions, such as Gov. Walker, want to cut government and reduce taxes on the wealthy. (Dire budget rhetoric notwithstanding, Walker’s first item of business was to reduce taxes on corporations and the well-off.) And they would much prefer to do it without unions calling them to account. […]

In moments of candor, critics of unions reveal that their agenda transcends budget concerns. House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, decried an economic rescue package for states last year as a “payoff to union bosses and liberal special interests.”

But the goal of union opponents is not to exorcise “special interests” from American politics. It is to protect the special interests that represent corporate America and Wall Street from any serious challenge.

This wasn’t always as partisan an issue as it is now. In 1954, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower declared: “Unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Today, those reactionaries dominate Republican politics, which created an un-virtuous cycle — enjoy the largess of powerful benefactors, use the money to run campaigns as champions of working families, use their offices to ignore working families and boost their benefactors — that feeds itself with great ease.

It’ll stay this way until voters decide it shouldn’t.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.