With the enemies at the gate, the liberal elite seems to have finally learned to love unions. Nicholas Kristof writes that, contrary to his earlier opinion, “we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.” Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a key architect of Bill Clinton’s finance-friendly economic policy, recently argued, “Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth.” And in “The Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity,” which is likely to become the centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the commission, co-chaired by Ed Balls and Lawrence Summers, concludes that “we need to support the growth of unions.”
But it may be too little, too late. Democrats did little to defend unions when it counted. Under President Jimmy Carter, Alfred Kahn began deregulating the airlines. Carter then signed into law legislation deregulating railroads and trucking (both hobbling powerful unions). President Bill Clinton pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement against union opposition and deregulated finance, greatly empowering capital. To be fair, some of these pressures came from global trends, but public policy played a key role in tilting the field against labor. Now Republicans are fighting to drive a final spike in the heart of the most effective anti-inequality movement in history. If liberals do nothing to shore up unions, their decline will only continue. That will have important implications for inequality.