It was only a matter of time before the credentialed heavyweights started weighing in on the Wisconsin labor dispute. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, former UCC seminary professor and president who now works for the partisan think tank Center for American Progress, brings all her intellectual firepower to bear on the situation and…completely misconstrues it. She writes in the Washington Post in an article entitled “We need a new Social Gospel: the moral imperative of collective bargaining”:
Where is Walter Rauschenbusch, the great theological voice of the Social Gospel, today? Well, he’s been in Madison, WI and now he’s showing up in Indiana and Ohio as American workers and their pastors and religious leaders begin to realize that when the right to form unions and bargain collectively is under attack, something fundamental to human dignity is under attack.
The rights of workers to join together and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions is not just a civil right, it is a fundamental way we recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity and worth. This idea, that human dignity, what Christians call “the image of God,” is what connects Christian moral reasoning and action for worker rights in the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, in the Solidarity movement in Poland as seen in the work of John Paul II, and now, I believe, in a reawakened American labor movement.
She goes on and on in that same man-the-barricades vein, and frankly it isn’t worth quoting. So what doesn’t she get?
1) The right of Wisconsin public employees to be members of a union is not being attacked.
2) The right of Wisconsin public employees to collectively bargain for wages is not being changed.
3) The right of Wisconsin public employees to enjoy the other benefits of being members of a union are not being challenged.
Now, one can make a good case that public employees should not be allowed to unionize. Franklin Roosevelt thought that, and Jonah Goldberg makes a pretty good case that such unions have an inherent conflict of interest that should lead to their abolition:
Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal–era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.
Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV Cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to The Jungle? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.
Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests, and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government. California’s pension costs soared 2,000 percent in a decade thanks to the unions.
The labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when the unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”
This is why FDR believed that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” and why even George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, held that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
Thistlethwaite makes the same mistake–or deliberate obfuscation–that so many on the left are making today by confusing private and public employee unions, and acting as though they are the same thing. She goes on and on in her paean to unionization, and simply ignores the political and monetary feedback loop that is set up when public employee unions can, as Gotbaum said, elect their own bosses, who are then beholden to those same union for campaign contributions. It amazing, really, that the same people who are so certain that corporate campaign donations taint the political system can’t see that the most egregious corruption is the featherbedding relationship between politicians and the public employee unions who elect them. Can you say quid pro quo? If you’re Susan Thistlethwaite, apparently you can’t.
Now, this feedback loop just so happens to benefit almost exclusively (to the tune of 98.5% of all contributions) the party that Thistlethwaite spins for, so I guess it makes sense for her to try to defend this system. But there’s something really galling about her citing Solidarity and John Paul II to try to defend the corruption that surrounds most American public employee unions. She is right in one regard, however. This is a moral issue: the immorality of public employee unions and politicians conspiring to fleece the public they are supposed to serve.