Saturday, 24 January 2015

Government of Itself: Public sector trade unionism and the limits of democracy


I've had little time to sit and write since returning to Ruskin after the Christmas break given the pace of work, although I have been desperate to write something in order to reflect upon and interpret much thought related to recent teaching, and in particular linked to critical reflective practice and also trade union leadership.

I think I shall come back to these themes (not least as they will appear a lot within my teaching over the next few months) and instead use this post to grind an axe over a remarkably porous and ultimately ill-conceived new book published this month.

Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences by Daniel DiSalvo was published on 6th January by Oxford University Press (OUP), and is hailed in the marketing blurb thus:

As workers in the private sector struggle with stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and rising retirement ages, unionized public employees retire in their fifties with over $100,000 a year in pension and healthcare benefits. The unions defend tooth and nail the generous compensation packages and extensive job security measures they've won for their members. However, the costs they impose crowd out important government services on which the poor and the middle class rely. Attempts to rein in the unions, as in Wisconsin and New Jersey, have met with massive resistance. Yet as Daniel DiSalvo argues in Government against Itself, public sector unions threaten the integrity of our very democracy.

Before I engage with the book, it is helpful to note that DiSalvo is a fellow of the Manhattan Institute (MI), a right-wing thinktank established by none other than William Casey, who was director of the CIA under Reagan. In its modern-day guise the Institute retains a ruthless, authoritarian position on the state, privatisation, immigration, welfare etc., and is core funded by a league of ne'er do wells including the Koch brothers. Here is a useful background institute and its background and contemporary status:

The MI status of DiSalvo is critically important in understanding (a) the dogmatic, irrational and deeply flawed theses of the book, and (b) why, in the frenzy of the post-Obama era, and search for the Republican presidential candidate, the books 'findings' have been leapt upon with such glee by the right, as a way to undermine any trade union support for the Democrat candidate.

Although it may set your teeth on edge, any sound critical analysis of the book (it isn't worth buying, trust me) requires listening to a first-hand account of the premise of the book by DiSalvo himself at a MI bash a couple of weeks ago:

Whilst I may sound naïve, I am surprised that the OUP have published a book whose critical weaknesses rest principally on the explicit bias and prejudice of the author, and thus can withstand no simple analysis of its many flawed arguments.

DiSalvo's principle position is that public sector workers rule government, particularly at local/state level (by supporting pro-union councillors etc.), and thus contrive corrupt rules and enjoy lavish benefits that no other workers enjoy. He claims a pretended love of private sector unions who, he argues, have nothing other then simple bargaining power to achieve vastly disproportionate levels of pay/benefits, and thus, somehow, are better/true unions, as a result.

Thatcher and DiSalvo: You can't
trust public sector trade unions
If you wasn't aware of DiSalvo's MI patronage, you'd wonder what he was up to, and how he could reach such conclusions, but then everything falls into place. Whilst DiSalvo claims, as Thatcher did in the 80's when banning unions at GCHQ, that there is a contradiction in allowing independent trade unionism in delivering sensitive public services, he is, unremarkably, silent about issues of impartiality/trust etc., when it is the private sector as service delivery agent.
Similarly, whilst he argues that public sector unions are a threat to democracy, he seems incapable of drawing a more relevant conclusion when analysing the rise of state power vis the state - but that's because he explictly ignores the issue, as he sees no conflict here in any case. That ALEC is one the organisations allied to MI is a testament to how corrupted is DiSalvo's position on the threats to liberal democracy in the US. Read Paul Krugman in the New York Times (NYT) on ALEC to understand my point:

Trade unions can indeed be reactionary, conservative self-serving bodies, and there is a vast body of literature which chronicles how this pattern of behaviour has both precipitated labour movement decline, and in some contexts is an impediment to renewal. DiSalvo's book however, has nothing to add that was not known already, nor does it  offer an authentic, original, scholarly approach within the field.

At a time when the limits of democracy in both the US and UK preclude the interests and values of the bulk of the population, trade unions can and do act as a corrective in providing an equilibrium within the imbalance of corporate influence on mainstream political parties, and thus on government. Additionally, public sector trade unions have a legitimate place as civil society actors in alliance with the public in defending services, particularly in the context of austerity measures. Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage provide a cogent insight on this in the Canadian context in Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity:

This book could have been a useful assessment of why and how trade unions seek to gain power and influence in the US, and perhaps even how this may act as a detriment to workers', society and government interests. Instead, it serves the beneficial purpose of realising further the manipulative reach of corporate interests within the academic/research sphere.

In Solidarity


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