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The Wisconsin union fight isn't about benefits. It's about labor's influence.
The result was a new Washington - one that tilted tax and economic policies away from middle-class Americans. In a little more than a generation, the richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers saw their slice of the national income (including capital gains) increase from less than 3 percent to more than 12 percent. Perhaps the most destructive legacy, however, was the expansion of reckless practices on Wall Street, which Washington alternately ignored and encouraged.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, unions were a primary voice urging reform. In the face of aggressive lobbying by the health-care and financial industries, labor sunk a huge share of its limited resources into advocacy groups pushing for health-care reform and greater financial regulation.
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.
Unions surely have room to improve. Justifiably worried about external threats, they have too often played down their internal weaknesses. They're quick to point out, correctly, that public-employee pensions aren't a major cause of state budget woes and that public-sector workers aren't overpaid relative to similarly educated private workers. They've been much slower to change undesirable features of union contracts, such as policies that overemphasize seniority and protect poorly performing workers. Still, just as we wouldn't block entrepreneurs from forming corporations because some firms pollute or engage in financial fraud, we should not radically undermine the rights of Americans in unions just because some hinder effective responses to economic and policy challenges.
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.
Jacob S. Hacker is a professor of political science at Yale University, and Paul Pierson is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. They are the authors of "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer - and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class."