Wednesday, February 3, 2010

America's Only "Growth Industry"

Government is America's only remaining growth industry -- the only sector of the economy that continues to expand even as the private economy (the "competitive sector," as one friend calls it) contracts. It's not very surprising, therefore, that government sector unions have now eclipsed competitive sector counterparts in terms of membership numbers. While overall U.S. union membership continues to fall, tracking the downward trajectory of old line industries (industries that unions helped destroy), the numbers are rising where the growth is -- in government.

The Wall Street Journal makes note of this trend, and explores some of the implications, on today's editorial page.

"In private industries, union workers are subject to the vagaries of the marketplace and economic growth. Thus in 2009 10.1% of private union jobs were eliminated, which was more than twice the 4.4% rate of overall private job losses. On the other hand, government unions offer what is close to lifetime job security and benefits, subject only to gross dereliction of duty.

Once a city or state's workers are organized by a union, the jobs almost never go away.
This means government is the main playing field of modern unionism, which explains why the AFL-CIO and SEIU have become advocates for higher taxes and government expansion in cities, states and Washington. Unions once saw their main task as negotiating a bigger share of an individual firm's profits. Now the movement's main goal is securing a larger share of the overall private economy's wealth, which means pitting government employees against middle-class taxpayers.

And as union membership has grown in government, so has union clout in pushing politicians (especially but not solely Democrats) for higher wages and benefits. This is why labor chiefs Andy Stern (SEIU) and Rich Trumka (AFL-CIO) could order Democrats to exempt unions from ObamaCare's tax increase on high-cost health insurance plans. To the extent Democrats have become the party of government, they have become ever more beholden to public unions.

The problem for democracy is that this creates a self-reinforcing cycle of higher spending and taxes. The unions help elect politicians, who repay the unions with more pay and benefits and dues-paying members, who in turn help to re-elect those politicians."

With American manufacturing down on its knees, brought low by self-inflicted and government-inflicted wounds (as opposed to the usual bogeymen of free trade and globalization), the only fertile ground left for unionism to grow is in the government sector. That not only is turning unions into a major lobby for higher taxes and government growth, as the editorial points out. It also increases the difficulty of reining-in government, and reforming government, when the "taxpayer sector" balks at paying more. That dynamic can be seen not just at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well.

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