Mickey Kaus, in his inimitable permalink-free way takes a shot (kind of) at the Democrats’ stated plan for attacking the growing inequality in America, a phenomenon which has finally, miraculously ascended to the status of Serious Issue. Basically, the proposals on the table aren’t exactly radical. We’re not talking some kind of social democratic reordering of the American welfare state. The basics are raising the minimum wage, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, expanding the EITC, expanding Pell grants for higher education, and reforming labor laws.
Kaus’ objection is both that these are too little and too much. He zeroes in on one item, the proposal to make it possible to form a union by getting a majority of workers to sign a card asking for one, as a bridge too far. Card check, he writes, “could dramatically change the structure of the American economy for the worse, spreading unprodctive, legalistic, Detroit-style union practices (work rules, promotion by seniority, protections for lousy workers, etc.) by subjecting non-union workers to thuggish peer pressure.”
Kaus is correct that card check is the most potentially radical proposal on the table, but wrong about its effects. Due to lax enforcement of labor laws, and their inherent weakness, it’s become virtually impossible to organize a union through the traditional NLRB election process. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that a lot of unions, most notably those in the Change To Win coalition have pretty much given up on NLRB elections, preferring instead to use PR campaigns to pressure employers into agreeing to “neutrality,” meaning they’ll allow a union election without actively campaigning against it. The Employee Free Choice Act would make neutrality the law, and more than any other single piece of legislation help revive the American labor movement. It seems to me that it’s simply impossible to really address inequality in America without a robust labor movement.
Also, aside from the libelous implication that union organizers are “thuggish,” Kaus seems to think that more unionization will lead to more companies tied down in expensive, sclerotic labor contracts like those that are killing GM. But it’s not the union contracts that are killing GM per se, so much as it’s the old corporate welfare state model of employer-backed health insurance and pensions, a system that is proving destructive in an era of globalization.
Jacob Hacker has proposed one solution, a form of universal insurance that would package together insurance for a variety of the uncertainties Americans increasingly face: from the risk of a catastrophic illness to job loss due to technological change. Kaus is right that as a package, the Dems’ proposals aren’t going to solve the inequality problem. But universal insurance combined with stronger unions would go a long way.