Home / Robert Farley / The Great Divide…

The Great Divide…


Ugh.  Yggy struggles to understand why progressives support public sector unions:

The most salient difference, completely absent from his armchair psychologizing, is surely that public school teachers work for the government. If AT&T workers get a better deal for themselves, that may well mean a worse deal for people who bought AT&T stock in past years but I’m not going to cry on their behalf. By contrast, if Chicago public school teachers get a better deal for themselves that may well mean a worse deal for Chicago taxpayers.

Indeed, what baffles me about these discussions is the tendency of labor’s alleged friends to simply refuse to look this reality in the face and instead insist that any hostility to specific union asks must secretly reflect the skeptic’s hostility to the existence of the union or its members. If you think that Chicago’s teachers deserve the right to form an association to advocate, lobby, and bargain on behalf of the interests of its members (and why shouldn’t they?) then you have to think that they deserve the right to advocate for ideas that may not be in the public interest. That’s fine, everybody does it. But it really does mean that the policy proposals ought to be examined on the merits. If CTU members get what they want, that’s not coming out of the pocket of “the bosses” it’s coming out of the pocket of the people who work at charter schools or the people who pay taxes in Chicago.


  1. All strikes are damaging and inconvenient; it’s the point of having a strike, which is what this controversial Dylan Matthews piece largely misses. Moreover, all strikes are damaging and inconvenient for the general public, regardless of whether workers are paid by the state or by private actors. If a private sector union wins higher wages or other concessions, the costs of those concessions will very often be passed to consumers. It follows that the fact that public union strikes are damaging, inconvenient, and costly to the general public is by no means determinative of how progressives ought to think about the strike.
  2. Unions (public or private sector) contribute to progressive political goals above and beyond the issues at stake in any particular labor dispute. They provide an organizational political counter-weight against actors (corporations, etc.) broadly associated with the capital half of the capital/labor divide. Large, powerful, happy, successful unions are good for progressive politics, again completely apart from the issues of any particular labor dispute. Moreover, unions tend to improve the lot of non-unionized employees in their regions by providing more robust employment options. Conservatives understand this. Consequently, progressives should begin by giving unions (including public sector unions) the benefit of the doubt during disputes.
  3. As Yggy surely knows, the state and the public are different things, often with profoundly divergent ends. Assuming a coherence between state interest and public interest is beyond sloppy; it’s simply wrong. While the focus on Rahm in this particular case probably hasn’t been helpful, union advocates have made a relatively clear case that the city of Chicago is serving the public interest poorly through its spending priorities. This is hardly an unreasonable position; indeed, it is incredibly likely that the city of Chicago (like any other subset of the state) could spend money more effectively in pursuit of the public interest, or (perhaps more to the point) that the city of Chicago should weigh the needs of public workers (who make up a very substantial portion of the public, after all) more heavily in its evaluation of what constitutes the public interest.  Strikes and other labor disturbances are a way of making that point in a very clear, public way. It may nevertheless be true that the taxpayers of Chicago will have to pay higher taxes (or different taxpayers will have to pay different rates) in order to provide for a robust public school system, but again this does not distinguish public sector unions from their private sector counterparts.
  4. “Benefit of the doubt” does not mean “absolute adherence to everything the union says!” This is so obvious as to barely be worth mention, but then Yggy (among others) felt the need to write the “labor’s alleged friends” etc. line. Labor unions, like every other political actor, tend to exaggerate their case. Their memberships may be unreasonable or have a poor understanding of the stakes. Their leaderships may be corrupt, foolish, or misguided, both as to the prospects for the success of any particular action and to the larger economic fundamentals that limit the viability of a state or firm. “Friends of labor” should indeed scrutinize the claims of particular unions. However, this has very little to do with anything that Matt mentions above, which relies on the aforementioned nonsense about taxpayers having to pony up more dough, etc.

ERIK: So Farley wrote this in the middle of me writing my response. A couple of additional points:

1. By Matt’s logic, where he says, ” If CTU members get what they want, that’s not coming out of the pocket of “the bosses” it’s coming out of the pocket of the people who work at charter schools or the people who pay taxes in Chicago” why not just pay the teachers minimum wage? Whatever we pay public sector workers is coming out of the people who pay taxes. This is hardly different than Megan McArdle’s argument against the CTU where she said, “This is why legislators should always think very carefully about extending benefits–to workers, to citizens, to legislators. These committments essentially become non-negotiable, which in times of financial trouble, can mean “disastrous”. If our primary goal is to not have taxpayers pay anything, why pay teachers at all?

And isn’t that basically a Republican argument?

2. Matt also doesn’t articulate well (I know he understands this) how private sector wage gains get passed on to consumers. He says public sector workers are different because the cost gets passed on to the taxpayer rather than the shareholder. But don’t private sector employers tell us if their workplace is unionized they’ll just pass the cost onto the consumer? If wage gains are passed down, they are passed down for both public and private sector workers, just in different ways.

3. Again, this strike is not primarily about wages. Why can’t people get their heads around this!!! But I guess more money for school libraries and music programs will also come out of the taxpayer pocket so we’d better not do that….

4. The shot at “labor’s alleged friends” is absolutely outrageous. Labor’s “real friends” warn the public that anything they gain comes out of taxpayers pockets so we’d better be careful about giving in to them!

5. Finally, the CTU strike began while Slate writers were at a retreat in a baronial mansion somewhere in upstate New York. Jacob Weisberg, the boss over there, took time away from their retreat to tweet, “Rooting for Rahm to make the Chicago Teachers’ Union sorry for this inexcusable strike. Students in class fewest hours of any big city.” It was very John D. Rockefeller, right house and all. I have to wonder what kind of conversations were had at this retreat by the Slate staff, including Yglesias.

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