Henry Smith Reviews Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences

Daniel DiSalvo opens his new book with the declaration that he is a third generation
union member. However, the author quickly distances himself from this heritage; he
spends the 229 pages of Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its
Consequences (2015), arguing that America’s public unions, the strongest unions in
modern America, are destructive of our democratic culture. I am from a union family.
My mother was a teacher and union member in Massachusetts, and I spent three years
working for the AFL-CIO. My disagreement with DiSalvo’s position is, therefore, not
only philosophical but also personal.

The chapter titles betray DiSalvo’s view: Electing your own boss; The Distortion of
Direct Democracy; Shelter from the Storm; and A Day of Reckoning? Inside these
chapters DiSalvo outlines the rise of public sector labor unions, including the fact
that the local, state, and federal governments now owe the public unions $3.2 trillion
in unfunded pension plans. Furthermore, DiSalvo tells the readers that these
unfunded pension plans arise because the three levels of governments must pay
these workers retirement benefits that reach, in some cases, the outrageous sum of
$100,000 per year. In other words, the author attacks one of the few organizations in
this country that has successfully helped workers to receive the retirement comfort for
which we all strive.

DiSalvo’s deeper concern is the effect of public sector unions upon democratic society.
He believes that because public labor unions throw their campaign support behind
political candidates that they, in effect, elect their own government bosses. This, of
course, is not the case with private sector unions that also engage in politics. The private
sector unions do not elect their corporate bosses, and they have also lost much of their
political clout with nongovernment workers. DiSalvo considers public union politicking
to be the “… Achilles heel of American liberalism …” (p. 12): when public unions engage
in campaigns and heavily influence public budgetary decisions, he says, they are corrupting
our democracy. As examples of this particular upending of democracy, DiSalvo tells
us, correctly, that the public labor unions now dominate the elections and the governance
of public institutions in Chicago and California. However, later in the book,
DiSalvo acknowledges that public union bosses only control one of the 50 state governments
(California). This data weakens his argument that a prounion stance is inimical to
progressive liberalism and democracy.

To his credit, DiSalvo does point out the good that the larger union movement has
done for workers in the United States. He reminds readers that American unions fought
to secure workplace safety, the minimum wage, 40-hr work weeks and child labor laws
for all workers, even professors. He should have reminded the reader that, during those
labor struggles, government officials (before there were public sector unions) used the
police and army to crush the unions. Also, DiSalvo fails to remind readers that it was
only when the American economy completely collapsed during the Great Depression,
that private and public sector workers were able to gain the full, but temporary, support
of the government to enact worker rights. In other words, despite the long and hard
fought struggle for workplace rights, the union movement that helped DiSalvo’s family
and mine move into the middle class is now hanging on by its finger tips. For me, the
story is one of loss.

American workers, whether they are employed on oil rigs, in Silicon Valley, or in
hospitals or universities, in both the private and the public sectors, need unions now
more than ever. American productivity, thanks to technology, is now through the roof,
but the American workers do not see the benefits. In the 1990s, 35% of private sector
American workers had pension funds; that figure is now down to 18% (Fletcher, 2015).
Since the Great Recession of 2008, businesses have relied on more temporary, part-time,
and contract workers, thereby reducing the need to pay benefits and reducing the
workers’ shares of corporate income dramatically (Greenhouse, 2015).

One of the more powerful lessons I learned at the AFL-CIO came from reading
scholarship applications from children of union families that described how the union
helped their moms and dads to give them a better life. From the union members with
whom I worked, I learned that while they frequently lived paycheck to paycheck, the
union gave them some back-up security. And I remember the graduation ceremonies at
the AFL-CIO’s National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. On those proud
occasions, three generations came to watch mom or dad become the first member of
their family to receive a college degree.

Now, when American workers need unions as much as we did in the 1930s, too many
people forget, or never learned, what the unions once meant to working families. DiSalvo
disagrees entirely; he ends his book by saying that America’s “experiment” with public
unions has been bad for the country: “Unionized government overburdens taxpayers,
makes services on which the poor and middles class rely less effective, and distorts the
democratic process” (p. 229). Some of us can still remember what a strong union
movement means for the poor and middle class in an unchecked, wealth-driven economy.
Too bad DiSalvo cannot.

DiSalvo, D. (2015). Government against itself: Public union power and its consequences. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, M. (2015, October 30). The inequality in retirement savings between top 100 CEOs and U.S.
workers. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/michaela-fletcher)

Greenhouse, S. (2015, November 1). The mystery of the vanishing pay raise. The New York Times.

Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/sunday-review/the-mystery-of-the-vanishingpay-raise.html?_r=0)

Henry M. Smith
Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Education
Johns Hopkins University
Former Assistant Secretary of Education
© 2016 Taylor & Francis


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