Don’t Count Out the Labor Movement



by Walter Brasch


Almost every conservative political columnist, pundit, commentator, blogger, and bloviator has written about the decline and forthcoming death of the labor movement.

They happily point to Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker shortly after taking office in January 2011 took advantage of a Republican majority in the House and Senate to ram through legislation that stripped numerous collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. Among collective bargaining rights are those that assure decent working conditions and a fair grievance process to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory discipline.

The Republicans point to Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich, with similar legislative support, signed legislation in March 2011 that restricted collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.

They point to state after state where Republican legislators, with the financial support of private industry have brought forth self-serving bills to oppose collective bargaining.  

The conservative mantra is to pander to the middle-class pocketbook by creating a pseudo-populist appeal. The right-wing claims they are the ones who care about the people enough to cut government spending, which will lower all kinds of taxes. They altruistically scream that inflated payrolls and pensions caused economic problems, and the best way to help those who are struggling in a depressed economy is to lower those costs by curtailing the perceived power of unions. It sounds nice; it’s also rhetoric encased in lies.

Numerous economic studies have shown that the pay for public union employees is about the same as for private sector employees in similar jobs. And in some jobs, public sector workers earn significantly less than non-unionized private sector workers, leading to professionals and technical specialists often switching jobs from government to private industry, usually at higher wages and benefits.

So what, exactly, is the problem? Tax cuts. Bill Clinton left office, having given the nation a strong economy. During the Go-Go years in the first part of the 21st century, under the Bush–Cheney administration, states and the federal government created tax cuts for individuals, and held out generous tax cuts, tax waivers, and subsidies to corporations. The Republican theory was that these tax cuts would eventually “trickle down” to the masses by stimulating the economy.

What happened is that instead of benefitting the masses, these forms of wealthfare and corporate welfare, have done little to stimulate an economy that was heading down because the Republican executive and legislative branches, preaching less government, didn’t want government interference in financial institutions, the most politically conservative business. As a result of deregulation or, in many cases minimal regulation oversight, came the twin catastrophes of the Wall Street scandals and the housing mortgage crisis that spun the nation into the deepest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.

But you don’t hear the Republicans tell you they caused it, only that a run-away economy is because of those fictional high government salaries that need to be cut.

Joseph Slater, professor of law at the University of Toledo, says because of the 2008 crisis, states experienced massive budget shortfalls because growing unemployment decreased tax revenue. The problem in the states and the federal government, Slater told NEA Today, isn’t because of collective bargaining, but “because some of the worst state budget problems are in the small handful of states that prohibit public sector collective bargaining, states like Texas and North Carolina.” However, said Slater in an article for the American Constitution Society, “states with strong public sector collective bargaining laws . . . have smaller than average deficits.”

In response to conservative calls to curtail “pension abuse” in the public sector, Slater pointed out that “the vast majority of states don’t allow unions to bargain over public pension benefits,” and that some of the worst pension problems are in the so-called right-to-work states that have no public employee unions.

In contrast to the all-out assault upon the workers by Republicans, Govs. Dan Malloy of Connecticut and Jerry Brown of California, both Democrats, have been reducing budget deficits, sometimes with a heavy hand as they slash programs and the number of workers, in consultation with the unions and without curtailing union rights. Unionized  workers in both private and public sectors have taken temporary pay cuts or agreed to taking vacation days without pay. Few corporate executives and no state legislators have willingly matched the sacrifices of the workers.

Now, as for those conservatives who are dancing on what they think are the graves of the working class labor movement. There’s a few stories they aren’t happily reporting.  

In Wisconsin, the recall election of Scott Walker did fail, as out-of-state individuals, PACs, and corporations contributed about two-thirds of his $30 million campaign to keeping him in office, as opposed to his opponent raising only about one-eighth of that amount. However, in subsequent elections, all three Democratic senators survived recall votes, and two of six Republican senators were recalled, leading to a change in Senate membership from 19–14 Republican to 17–16 Republican, but effectively blocking a “super majority” from ramrodding further anti-worker legislation into law.

In Ohio, voters overwhelmingly rejected, 62–38 percent, the new Ohio law that stripped collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. In defeat, Gov. Kasich, whose attacks upon collective bargaining were a central part of his campaign, said “It’s clear the people have spoken.”

Monday is Labor Day. It’s more than just picnics and a three-day weekend. It’s a time to honor the working class, and the unions that gave them the rights of collective bargaining. They may be struggling but they are far from dead.

[Walter Brasch is a syndicated social issues columnist and author. His latest book is the critically acclaimed journalistic novel, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, which has an underlying union theme. He is a proud member of several professional and trade unions, including The Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America.]



Some Thoughts on Labor Day

Today is our celebration of the Labor Movement and the value of the workers who built and continue to maintain America. As a holiday, it has an interesting political history and looking at the 127 years it has been celebrated we see stark changes that have been made in the relationship between the government and labor.

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'Young Workers: A Lost Decade'

Something bad happened in the past 10 years to young workers in this country: Since 1999, more of them now have lower-paying jobs, if they can get a job at all; health care is a rare luxury and retirement security is something for their parents, not them. In fact, many--younger than 35--still live at home with their parents because they can't afford to be on their own.

These are the findings of a new report, "Young Workers: A Lost Decade." Conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, the nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999. The deterioration of young workers' economic situation in those 10 years is alarming.

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Merkley Celebrates Labor Day, Asks Supporters to Help Gulf Coast

Today is Labor Day, a day dedicated to hardworking Americans deserving of a day off. Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley is spending the holiday celebrating with his labor brothers and sisters at picnics in Portland and Eugene. Before I give you an update on the day's festivities, I want to take a minute to mention a few things....

Full disclosure, I am the netroots director for OR-Sen candidate Jeff Merkley

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167 Union Volunteers in Action Across Kentucky

167 Union Volunteers in Action Across Kentucky [BLOG.AFLCIO.ORG]   

In one of the largest statewide labor walks ever held in Kentucky, 167 union activists walked door to door Saturday to talk with union members about the upcoming election in which Steve Beshear is challenging anti-worker Gov. Ernie Fletcher for office.  

Despite Beshear's 20-point lead in the polls, union members in Kentucky are not sitting back. Fletcher has canceled bargaining rights for state employees, privatized Kentucky's Medicaid program and pushed to repeal the prevailing wage law and implement anti-union "right to work" for less legislation. Beshear opposes so-called "right to work" legislation and has affirmed his support of safeguards for the prevailing wage, employee bargaining, the need for affordable health care and good jobs.

After our state kickoff walk last week in which more than 400 volunteers went door to door in Jefferson County, we continue to knock on thousands of union doors across the state, with walks this weekend in Lexington, Louisville, Owensboro, Paducah and Pikeville.

In Paducah, where 34 volunteers turned out, Jeff Wiggins, Northern Kentucky AFL-CIO Labor Council president, notes:
"I've been the Northern Kentucky Central Labor Council President since 2000, this is the largest labor walk we've ever held in Paducah."

Union members taking part in the Paducah walk include: AFSCME, AFT, Alliance for Retired Americans, Fire Fighters (IAFF), IronWorkers, Operating Engineers, Painters and Allied Trades, UAW and United Steelworkers (USW).

Tim Smith, coordinator of the area that includes Owensboro, said the walk there was "larger than any Labor 2004 or Labor 2006 labor walk--and it is only the first one so far this year."
Members from the Electrical Workers (IBEW), Operating Engineers (IUOE), the Kentucky Education Association, Mine Workers (UMWA), Sprinkler Fitters, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters (UA), UAW and USW took part.  

Donnie Colston, coordinator for the area that includes Louisville, said, "Despite more than 400 walkers last week for our kickoff, nearly 60 more union volunteers showed up this week to walk with us again." Colston concludes:
Union members refuse to take anything for granted.  
Those union members are part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), IBEW, Laborers (LIUNA), Machinists (IAM), UAW, USW, Working America and more.

Meanwhile in Lexington, where 42 volunteers turned out, area coordinator Mike Donta said:
"This is the one of the largest walks we've ever had in Lexington."

Members of AFT, Carpenters, CWA, IAFF, IBEW, Iron Workers, LIUNA, Office and Professional Employees, UAW, USW and Utility Workers (UWUA) all took part.

Pikeville's 10 volunteers were part of history, said coordinator Eddie Bowling:
"This is first time we've ever held a labor walk in all Eastern Kentucky. "

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