The Assault on Public Employee Unions

Guest blogger John S. James is a Psychometrist at California State University, Chico and the Vice President of Academic Professionals of California.

The Assault on Public Employee Unions

Over the past three years we have seen the cumulative impact of a wide and varied number of unprecedented and unrelenting attacks on public employees in general and public employee unions in particular. This ongoing campaign is not a merely a series of individual and isolated events, but rather is an integral part of a well-planned long-term coordinated strategy to undermine working people’s livelihoods and destroy what remains of important hard-won collective bargaining rights. It is no great secret that this effort has been in a great part orchestrated and massively financed by a number of extreme-right wing millionaires and billionaires, including the once reclusive and secretive, but now increasingly infamous Koch brothers.

The most recent and glaring demonstration of the assault on public workers occurred earlier this year in Wisconsin. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker (whose campaign was heavily financed by the Koch brothers and their affluent allies) deepened an existing fiscal crisis by giving massive tax breaks to wealthy individuals (including campaign donors) and large corporations.

Using the budget shortfall as a rationale, the governor demanded that Wisconsin public employees make significant concessions concerning salaries and pension benefits. After the unions finally agreed to accept these unprecedented proposals, the real agenda emerged – to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Despite sit-ins at the state capitol and some of the largest protest demonstrations in the state’s history, nearly all union rights of most state workers were eventually revoked by law.

In addition to Wisconsin, several states including Idaho; Indiana; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; Nebraska; New Hampshire; Ohio; Oklahoma; New Jersey, and Tennessee have recently enacted legislation restricting the rights of union members. Legislation has now been introduced in 43 states to change collective bargaining for public employees. Even in the ostensibly “blue state” of California, a ballot initiative has been filed that would amend the state constitution to prohibit the recognition of all public sector labor unions and prevent bargaining between these unions and government authorities.

It is important to note that such repressive and draconian measures, if adopted, might possibly violate existing international law, which definitively states that workers have a human right to organize and bargain collectively, according to Amnesty International.

It is somewhat encouraging that all of the media attention concerning the widespread vicious attacks on unionized public employees provoked a backlash, which has produced an outpouring of popular support. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken in February, 2011, expressed the sentiments of most Americans who now strongly oppose taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The poll found that 61% would oppose legislation in their state similar to the Wisconsin bill, compared with 33% who would favor this type of law.

Another example of this historic sea change in public attitude is reflected in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted last March, which clearly demonstrated that Americans firmly reject recent efforts to restrict the bargaining rights of union members. Interestingly, this survey also reported that 63% of respondents feel that corporations have more political power than unions. Public employees were viewed favorably by 72%, compared with 17% who saw them unfavorably. Of those individuals polled, 63% do not think that states should be allowed to break the promises previously made to their retired workers. Most importantly, 64% believe that public employees should have the right to bargain collectively. This result is also consistent with Parade magazine’s online poll, which found that 92% of the respondents believe that America still needs labor unions.

A solid majority of individuals polled in these surveys seem to have a clear understanding of the critical role played by organized labor in the struggle to achieve benefits for working people – benefits which unfortunately are often taken for granted. It was the unions that were instrumental in creating the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek with overtime. It was union activists who successfully fought for paid employee vacation and sick days, genuine retirement security with pensions, and health benefit packages including medical, dental and vision care. And it was the unions that bravely took a stand against the blight of child labor, and stood for unemployment insurance, workplace safety laws, a minimum wage, Social Security and worker’s compensation. Because of the efforts of labor unions, society as a whole changed for the better.

Union members and non-union members alike need to remember the great successes and monumental gains of the past and recognize that they are being threatened by the critical situation the American labor movement is currently facing. In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression and in the midst of often contentious and sometimes violent labor disputes, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) was signed into law as an important component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal. This legislation established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to assist workers in protecting recently won rights to bargain collectively over their terms and conditions of employment.

Eventually, based upon the percentage of all employed workers, union membership peaked at around 30–35% in the 1950s, which was also a time of unprecedented prosperity with a thriving and vibrant middle class. In contrast, for the year 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the nation’s union membership rate was 11.9%, down from 12.3% a year earlier. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. Despite the general nationwide decline, California now leads the nation in reporting the largest number of union members (2.4 million) with a membership rate of 17.5%.

The most disturbing finding of the 2010 Labor Report was that the union membership rate for the public sector (36.2%) was massively higher than that for private sector workers (6.9%). Why has the labor movement lost so many members in the private sector? The answer lies partly with actual and threatened job losses due to the impact on the large manufacturing sector of both globalization and so-called “free trade” – trade which sometimes pays near slave-labor wages in developing countries. Manufacturing was the great union bulwark that had once provided American workers with good wages and solid benefits.

The other key factor is that public sector employees had limited, though important, protections against wholesale retaliation for union-related activities. In the private sector, employees who attempted to organize in the workplace were often intimidated or summarily discharged. The unfortunate reality is that joining a labor union is no longer viewed as being an employee’s “legally protected” right. According to the NLRB annual report for 2005, there were 31,358 people who were either disciplined or fired for engaging in union activities. A poll conducted in December 2006 found that 58% of non-managerial workers would join a union if they had the opportunity. An ever-present and genuine fear of losing one’s livelihood prevents uncounted numbers of private sector workers from being involved in union organizing, despite wanting to do so.

The current assault on public employee unions is due in great part to the fact that they are the last remaining vestige of what was once a viable dynamic force, fighting for the economic rights of workers in this country. Organized women and men employed in the public sector are now precisely targeted in the crosshairs of determined, ruthless and well-armed adversaries.

Unions may possibly be the last major impediment standing between the total domination of the political and economic system by an oligarchy composed of a new breed of obscenely affluent “uber-libertarian” iconoclasts who want to establish another “gilded age” for present-day America. These plutocrats vehemently oppose even the slightest leveling of the parameters of an inherently unbalanced power relationship that exists between employee and employer, which is attained through collective bargaining. With what can only be described as religious fervor, they are convinced beyond reason that government has absolutely no legitimate function regulating business or providing for basic human needs. The Wall Street dictum that “Greed is good” has been baptized and morphed into “Greed is godly.” The libertarian fringe element is fervently committed to “starving the beast” and destroying all of the social progress achieved since the passage of the New Deal. In fact, extreme right-wing animosity toward Roosevelt’s policies isn’t only confined to FDR; it starts with the “Square Deal” of Teddy Roosevelt, the “trust buster” and conservationist who set aside massive tracts of land for national parks and ushered in the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century.

These ultra-conservative zealots look forward to returning this country to what they believe were the “good old days,” even though it will inevitably result in the same horrible conditions experienced by most workers in the past. They want to restructure the economy in order to once again create a society which is composed of only the greedy few who have riches beyond their wildest dreams and the vast majority who exist in a permanent state of human wretchedness.

Already, we can see the emerging “looneytarian” impact on the political process, creating a topsy-turvy skewed world where billion dollar corporations have been declared to have the same free-speech rights as people, and thus can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy elections. In this kind of world, all public services will one day be completely privatized by predatory corporate interests; all schools will have tuition and all roads eventually lead to a tollbooth.

Recently, public employees and collective bargaining have become convenient scapegoats, being vilified and blamed for the intractable financial difficulties faced by many state and local governments grappling with the repercussions of the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. The crisis faced by governmental agencies nationwide was not caused by public employee unions: it is the result of persistently high unemployment rates and collapsed housing prices which, along with unfair regressive tax systems that favor the wealthy, have resulted in enormous tax revenue shortfalls.

Our current economic situation is a direct consequence of the wholesale looting of financial markets by modern day robber barons engaging in a reprehensible new form of unregulated “casino capitalism.” These are the same individuals (with businesses interests that were “too big to fail”) who were subsequently bailed out when their financial “house of cards” not so unpredictably collapsed, and are now receiving obscene salaries, with accompanying bonuses and bewildering lucrative stock options. The benefits of a one-sided jobless recovery have not yet moved from the plush boardrooms of Wall Street to the threadbare living rooms of Main Street; the penthouse suite is now even further from the basement.

The tactic of the right wing is to convince the voters and taxpaying public that collective bargaining is responsible for widespread state and local budget deficits. This Big Lie narrative depicts living wages, comprehensive health care benefits, and retirement pension programs as outdated concepts which are prohibitively expensive. In the present day economy such advantages are unavailable to millions of private sector workers, and therefore this line of reasoning concludes that governmental agencies can no longer afford to provide these amenities to their “coddled and greedy” employees.

Significantly, the overall decline of labor unions over the past several decades has been a major factor in the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States and rapidly growing income inequality.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported on an analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, which found that in the generation following World War II, economic gains were shared widely, with the incomes of the bottom 90% actually increasing more rapidly in percentage terms, on average, than the incomes of the top 1%. However, since the late 1970s, the incomes of the bottom 90% of households have remained about the same, while the top 1% experienced massive income gains.

The average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households is almost $900 below what it was in 1979, while the average pre-tax income for the top 1% is over $700,000 above the 1979 level.

Piketty and Saez determined that two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains in the most recent economic expansion from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1% of U.S. households, which held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928. During those years, the real (inflation-adjusted) income of the top 1% of households grew more than ten times faster than the income of the bottom 90%.

The Financial Times notes that during this same period of economic expansion, the median US household income actually dropped by $2,000, which meant that most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the beginning. The annual incomes of the bottom 90% of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – increasing by only 10% in real terms over the last 37 years, during the same period in which the incomes of the top 1% tripled.

The Economic Policy Institute reports for the year 2009, the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households had a net worth that was 225 times greater than that of the typical household, which is the highest ratio ever recorded. Approximately one in four U.S. households had zero or negative net worth, up from 18.6% in 2007.

Although it is estimated that approximately 84% of the nation’s wealth is held by the upper 20% of the population (with the richest 1% hoarding almost 50%), researchers Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely reported that surprisingly, a panel representative of average Americans believed that wealth is distributed a lot more fairly in this country and greatly underestimated the present degree of our present inequality.

In 1973, chief executive officers (CEOs) were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now they are paid in excess of 300 times more. The New York Times recently commissioned a study which determined that for the year 2010 the median annual compensation of CEOs at the 200 largest U.S. companies was $10.8 million, a 23% increase from the year before. A USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found that for the same year, CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies received a median average of $2.2 million from bonuses, up 47% from $1.5 million in 2009.

By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 first quarter report revealed that the median wage for 98.3 million full-time workers was $755 a week. This amounted to an increase of only a scant 0.1 more than the prior year – very far below the 2.1 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index, which records the real cost of everyday living.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, points out that since the early 1980s a larger and larger share of the nation’s total income has been transferred to the very top. He notes that in 1980 the richest 1% of Americans received 10% of total national income, compared to over 20% of national income now. The result of this 30-year trend has been that the middle class lacks sufficient purchasing power to boost the economy without going deeply into debt. Reich writes, “The American economy can’t get out of neutral until American workers have more money in their pockets to buy what they produce. And unions are the best way to give them the bargaining power to get better pay.”

To view the assault on public employee labor unions as merely an isolated and limited campaign is to lose sight of the big picture. Attacking the last bastion of unionism is a bold tactical move; but it is just part of a cold and calculated strategy to finally destroy what is left of the middle class. If we eventually lose the middle class, we will also lose America as we presently know it.

The middle class in modern America was created out of the hard-fought battles of the labor movement in conjunction with the progressive policies of the post New Deal era. It is important to note that during this time period the “rising tide of unions lifted all boats” as it can be shown that collective bargaining raises the general salary levels of all workers, even those who are not unionized. Neither non-union nor represented employees should easily dismiss or forget the importance of this “invisible hand of the unionized marketplace.”

Despite all of the recent setbacks for the American middle class there have recently been some extremely encouraging developments, such as the exponential growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a solidly grassroots effort which has now received the support of organized labor. The powerful and compelling argument that 1% of the population massively benefits at the great expense of the remaining 99%, may eventually begin to resonate with an increasingly frustrated and angry populace.

Late in the year 2011, we look forward with guarded optimism to a better future for this country with a revitalized and committed universal labor movement, including both private and public sector employees, supported by union members and non-members alike, which could become a driving force that will protect the important gains made over the past several decades for all working people. We must fully engage in a protracted struggle to save the middle class with all of our available resources, so that the promise of the American Dream will indeed become a reality for future generations.



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