Will Election 2012 Hinge on Union Busting?

When GOP governors this winter began trying to bust public employee unions, a pillar of Democratic electoral strength, it seemed like a diabolically savvy political move, the kind Karl Rove used to call a “game changer.” Yet in the weeks that followed, poll after poll showed voters siding with the unions over the governors. The Republican effort was particularly unpopular among groups like independents in Ohio who may well decide the 2012 elections.

Instead of backing down, the GOP has doubled down. Anti-union legislation has now spread to nearly half the states. With the primary season heating up, GOP presidential candidates will soon be under pressure to publicly side with the union busters — a stance that Barack Obama and other Democrats will surely remind voters of in the general election.

In addition to helping Republicans hang themselves, though, the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly argues that progressives should take advantage of the unexpected pro-union mood of the country with a little Rovian game changing of their own. First, organized labor should make common cause with some economic players it usually ignores: entrepreneurs. As Barry Lynn argues in a manifesto essay, private sector unions and small businesses are both being squeezed by the increasing consolidation of American industry.

Second, to clinch the argument over public-sector unions, Democrats need to admit that the government pension crisis is real and come up with better solutions than the Republicans are offering. As Sylvester Schieber and Phillip Longman point out, unions aren’t really the problem: states that ban public-sector collective bargaining offer pensions as lavish as the ones that allow it. Rather, the problem is that politicians, regardless of party, can use pensions to hide future costs from the voters.

The way to fix this flaw is to bring the public in on the decision: Let unions and politicians negotiate, but if the resulting contract expands benefits, it must be approved by voters at the polls.

To read Lynn’s “The Real Enemy of Unions” click here.

To ready Schieber’s and Longman’s “The Fallacy of Union Busting” click here.