Tuesday, March 1, 2011

State of the Unions

"The game goes like this.  Destroy private-sector health and retirement benefits, and then say, 'Hey, how come those public employees get such good benefits?'"  Pro-union consultant quoted by E.J. Dionne.
It isn't that public sector unions are so powerful -- far from it.  Government workers have been making concessions on wages and benefits in state after state for several years.  It is only that they are stronger than their counterparts in the private sector, which isn't saying much.  Systematic efforts to undermine unions by private business has resulted in what Henrik Hertzberg calls a "catastrophic decline."  Public sector unions have not grown, but have merely "held steady."  This is because, as Hertzberg puts it, unlike factories, "government agencies cannot be relocated to China," nor can government agencies as easily flout labor laws -- at least the laws currently on the books.

And now, after what E.J. Dionne describes as "years of efforts to undermine unions in the private economy," the public-sector unions have become the target.  At least the prolonged nature of the standoff in Wisconsin has allowed the media to finally catch up to the real story.  Although early reporting lazily accepted Gov. Walker's contention that he and his Republican allies were merely trying to deal with the budget crisis by reining in greedy state workers, this became harder to accept once it was learned that the unions had already agreed to the cuts the Governor asked for. 

Progressives have understood from the beginning what this is about.  Unions are still seen by the right as the most significant organized opposition to Republican candidates.  As Paul Krugman wrote last week, this is an attempt to "exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy."  Or as Rachel Maddow described:  It is about "trimming the power of labor unions to organize voters, gather campaign cash and swing elections."

And if it works?  According to Hertzberg:  "If a Republican Party that has lately become rigidly, fanatically 'conservative' can succeed in reducing public-sector unions to the parlous condition of their private-sector brethren, then organized labor -- which, for all its failings . . . remains the only truly formidable counterweight to the ever-growing political power of the [super-rich] --  will no longer be anything close to a match for organized money."  Or as Dionne writes, "Eviscerating the power of the unions would make Republicans and Democrats alike more dependent than ever on rich and powerful interests and undercut the countervailing strength of working people."

Luckily, as Greg Sargent notes, it doesn't appear that the public unions are that easy to scapegoat after all.  A New York Times/CBS News poll just out finds that "a majority of Americans say they oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and are also against cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits."   This is consistent with an earlier Gallup poll.   The more the issue is framed -- as it should be -- as an attempt to roll back workers' rights and not about solving budget crises, most Americans side with the unions.  As the real story is being told, the Democrats and protesters, with the public on their side, appear to be gaining the upper hand. 

[Related post:  Badger Zeitgeist]


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