The Union Trilemma

(keep in mind: this ad, though hilarious, does involve a lot of profanity)

I’ve now talked to some people who have read this blog and yet aren’t Zuuko and one thing that becomes clear is that I should not be writing posts about US politics. I agree – I don’t like those posts either. But, sadly we can’t completely control what it is that interests us, so another US politics post for me it is.

A relatively big item in recent US politics news is that Wisconsin governor and noted union-buster Scott Walker won his recall election quite handily, and so people who were hoping he would be recalled are asking why that last did not happen. There are many factors: the belief of many that a recall except in cases of wrongdoing is never justified, the huge disparity in spending by the two sides, the fact that the Democratic candidate was, by all accounts, kinda crappy. But W., who’s a Wisconsinite, pointed out that the result is basically unsurprising since Walker originally campaigned on sticking it to public sector unions, was elected, and then went on to stick it to public sector unions just like he said he would. This brings us to the major reason for the loss, as summarised here by Doug Henwood: most people just don’t like unions.

As I found out this weekend, two members of the large group of people who dislike unions are my mom and dad. In fact, the vehemence of their opinions somewhat surprised me. But there are indeed excellent reasons to dislike unions. Unions are very rigid. They have all the problems inherent in hierarchical systems with little practical accountability. They are extremely prone to corruption (take a look at the Robert Fitch interview linked to by Henwood). etc. etc.

One thing that particularly galls my dad about unions is that unions make political contributions with dues obtained from their members. This is genuinely bad: dues paying members who do not support the politics of their union are in fact forced to support it monetarily. But take a look at the disparity in business and labour sources of political donations. Now the counting in that link is done oddly in that there are individuals who are counted as “business”. But while the above link is not a good way to assess whether corporations or unions donate more to politics it is a pretty good proxy for donations “on behalf of the rich” and “not on behalf of the rich”. Now rich people have all sorts of opinions, of course, and it’s unclear what our countries would be like if they were governed exclusively according to their whims (although let me offer a guess that on balance it would probably be an even better place for rich people), but I still think the total dominance of the rich among political voices is both undesirable and undemocratic. If we don’t like union political ads/donations and business political ads/donations, then, perhaps we can do away whole cloth with political donations and political ads run by people who aren’t running. Which, however is an imposition on freedom of speech. This leads us to the trilemma of the title: we can’t avoid at least one of those outcomes. An infringement of freedom of speech, the dominance of rich people in politics, and labour unions using dues to finance ads. In practice, we get stuck with a little bit of all three.


In other , totally unrelated US politics news, Jonathan Chait pens an unparallelledly superb blog post concluding paragraph:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

I was trying to think of a way to tie this quote to unions for like half an hour, but I just don’t see it. Enjoy it on its own merits, people.

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3 Responses to The Union Trilemma

  1. Yuri Khramov says:

    I did not realize that we impressed you so much with our anti-labour union comments. I still stand by them, and if you look at the stats that you refer to, they do not separate individual donations from institutional ones (which I am opposed to). The other point is, that while business donations are more or less balanced, the labour are certainly one-side, and this is because they are strictly ideologically determined. In Canada, as you know, it goes beyond donations: the unions have they direct say in NDP politics. That’s one of reasons that I detest NDP.

    • zolltan says:

      Of course your opinions have a strong effect! I should mention though that most times I have a conversation with anyone about politics, it makes me reconsider some opinions that I hold.

      Anyway, I don’t disagree with anything you say here. As you say, and as I mentioned in linking to the stats, they are NOT a good indicator of corporate vs. labour donations. But to me it seems they ARE a pretty good indicator of “donations on behalf of the rich” and “donations not on behalf of the rich”.

      The fact that the rich have more money to give to political parties is not at all scandalous or surprising. In fact, that is one of the possible incentives to becoming rich. But, while these donations may be “balanced” in the sense that they don’t all go to one party (although my guess is that they aren’t at all representative of the popular split between the parties. I bet they are, for example, heavily tilted against the Bloc Québecois), I do think they affect party ideologies in an unbalanced way and they encourage all parties to take positions that would make them more popular with rich people. That to me is a distortion that is problematic and union political donations to some extent counteract that problem. I am not saying union donations are of themselves good. But are they better than a politics run more strongly on behalf of the rich? You need only to look at the lack of success the US is having with enacting any sort of reasonably strong financial regulations to see the trouble this can bring. To me, both in Canada and in the US currently, allowing unions to make political donations is the lesser of those particular two evils.

      To my thinking right now, though, the best solution would be to move to the third point in this trilemma. That is, more strongly towards restricting ALL kinds of outside political donations and ads (something known here in the US under the slogan of campaign finance reform). But that, as I say, generates a freedom of speech problem in that it makes it very easy to deny any audience to dissident voices. I feel that right now this would not be a strong problem for the US or Canada, but for one thing maybe I am wrong, and for another, it could easily become a much more serious problem in the future.

  2. Zuuko says:

    People other than me read this blog?

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