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A Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

Last week I decreed that given how much income inequality was bound to figure as a campaign issue, I was justified in wading into the debate over Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, here on The Stump. The precedent thus set, I will today offer a thought on Ross Douthat's column on the Murray book  in yesterday’s Times. Douthat, who has made the plight of the white working class a specialty of his since co-authoring Grand New Party, a prescription for how the Republican Party can hold onto this part of the electorate, had a generally good take on Murray. He notes that Murray, while capturing well worrisome trends in working-class white America, offers few practical solutions, and then proceeds to offer a few of his own, from reducing the payroll tax burden on the working class to prison reform.

But along the way, Douthat drops an aside that needs challenging, because it has become all too common, and not only among his fellow conservatives. Douthat writes:

If Murray’s prescription for the social crisis is an exercise in libertarian wishful thinking, this liberal alternative is a mix of partisan demonization and budgetary fantasy. It was globalization, not Republicans, that killed the private-sector union and reduced the returns to blue-collar work.

Um, not exactly. Yes, a big reason for the decline of private-sector unionization, from  more than a third of the workforce in the 1950s to a mere 7 percent today, is that many of those union jobs succumbed to global competition and de-industrialization. But that in no way absolves Republicans of their accesssory role in this deed. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson described so well in Winner-Take-All Politics, starting in the mid-1970s the country has seen a concerted and hugely successful effort led by Republicans and business interests to undermine private-sector unions by tilting the playing field against organized labor. To be sure, the effort has not lacked for Democratic allies—even before Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, unions suffered a crushing defeat when legislation to make it easier to organize workers failed under Jimmy Carter’s watch, in 1978. And the Employee Free Choice Act would have passed in the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency were it not for the resistance of conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln who kept the legislation short of the 60 votes it needed to overcome a Senate filibuster. But there is no question that resistance to private sector unionism has been one of the chief animating and unifying issues for modern-day Republicans.

Not convinced that politics, and not just global economics, have laid lower American unions? Look north. Canada has contended with the same global competition and de-industrialization as we have, including in the auto industry that straddles the border between Ontario and Michigan. Yet the country has seen a far less dramatic decline in private sector unionization rates, which are still at about 16 percent today, more than double ours. The explanation is simple: the country’s laws are far more labor-friendly, akin in many ways to what the Employee Free Choice Act envisions. As Hacker and Pierson write:

..Little of the divergence can be explained by structural features of the two nations’ economies, or even by varying worker propensities to join a union. Rather, the difference is due to the much lower (and declining) likelihood in the United States that workers who have an interest in joining a union will actually belong to one. Canadian law, for example, allows for card certification and first-contract arbitration (both features of the Employee Free Choice Act currently promoted by labor unions in the United States.) It also bans permanent striker replacements, and imposes strong limits on employer propaganda. Moreover, because Canada has national health insurance and strikingly lower medical costs, unionized sectors in Canada also bear far lower legacy costs. All this contrasts sharply with the United States, where national political leaders have done little to ease the burden of private benefits and where aggressive antiunion activities by employers have met little resistance from public authorities.

If organized labor was being undermined by the global economy alone, why would Republican governors and legislators be bothering to pass “right to work” laws in their state, as Mitch Daniels just did in Indiana? If anything, the anti-union agenda of Republicans is now exacerbating the global shift to cheaper labor markets that Douthat blames—except we may now start being the occasional beneficiary. Last week, Caterpiller announced it was shutting down a plant in Ontario and shifting some of the work south to a place where workers would be paid less than half the rate that the workers at the Canadian plant were making. To Mexico? No—to Muncie, Indiana.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis