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.]

 

 

Look for the Union Bunny

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 

            Bullied, harassed, and lied to, District 1 of the Amalgamated Association of Easter Bunnies, AFB-CIO (American Federation of Bunnies–Cottontails International Organization) went on strike, forcing a halt to this year’s Easter egg hunts in Wisconsin.

            At Bunny Headquarters, Solomon P. Bunny, union executive secretary, and a militant corps of Easter bunnies were preparing picket signs. I walked in, notepad in hand.

            “Excuse me, Mr. Bunny, why aren’t your members delivering eggs this week?”

            Bunny looked up from the papers on his desk, chomped harder on his cigar, looked at me, scowled, and answered harshly, “Don’t you know!?”

            “No, sir,” I replied apologetically. “I always thought you were happy and content delivering Easter eggs.”

            “We love it,” growled Bunny, “but the Wisconsin Legislature doesn’t love us.”

            “I will admit the newly-elected governor and the newly-elected conservatives in the Legislature were a bit authoritarian in what they did to the rights of the workers.”

            “Authoritarian, heck!” said Bunny, “they’re the models of a fascist government in how they took away our rights.”

            “But don’t the people have a right to balance their budget without excessive union demands?” I asked.

            “Listen, Ink Breath, Wisconsin had a $120 million surplus just three months ago. The deficit isn’t because the public employees’ pensions and wages but more than $140 million in tax breaks the Republicans gave businesses, and another $200 million it pays every year to Wall Street investors. Add in all the travel perks and legislator benefits and you have a pile of money to stack your lies upon.”

            “But I read that public sector employees make more than those in the private sector.”

            “You read it where? In newspapers?” When I didn’t answer him quickly, he continued. “Yeah, thought so. The Center for Economic Policy Research—that’s an independent think tank—independent, you get it?—Independent, as in not funded by FOX News or Progressive Democrats of America—said that public sector workers, when compared against the same criteria as private sector workers, actually earn 4 percent less.”

            “Even with these facts, I doubt you’d have much support,” I said, noting that while most taxpayers want programs they don’t want to pay taxes and think union workers are greedy opportunists who deserve to be thrown on their tails, even if made of cotton.

            Bunny went into one of his files, pulled out a sheaf of papers, and slammed it on the desk. “Read it!” he commanded. Not wanting to further upset a furious bunny, I skimmed  the report that revealed about two-thirds of Americans support the rights of collective bargaining, even if they have serious problems with unions and how unions operate.”

  1.             “But those are polls,” I challenged. “Numbers can be manipulated to say anything.”           “How’s this for a number? In Madison one day, 100,000 citizens went to the capitol to explain things to their legislators. Even the cops and firefighters who had endorsed Republicans during the election were there as part of the working class.”

            “And the legislators heard their concerns?”

            “You crazy? Most snuck in and out of their offices, like the weasels they are. America is being mocked by other countries for what it’s doing to the workers.”

            “But we have the highest standards of living,” I countered.

            “Listen, Lead-type-for-brains, collective bargaining is one of humanity’s most fundamental rights. Says so in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by 48 countries in 1948.”

            “But the Wisconsin governor says he never planned to kill all collective bargaining, just the public sector ones. And only because it would help the people.”

            “You’ve got to be the dumbest piece of cow excrement walking around,” said Bunny. First you believe the newspapers, and then you believe some politician!”

            Humbled, I apologized. “I can see your point,” I said, feeling a little sorry for the bunnies, but I quickly recovered, reasserting my spine as a hard-hitting investigative reporter. “I assume you want everything. More wages, vacation days, sick days, larger pensions, no-pay medical benefits, shorter work weeks.”

            “You been sniffing newsprint? Haven’t you learned anything?! Sure, we want better work conditions. But, most of all, we want the right of collective bargaining negotiation. We ask for stuff. They don’t want to give us stuff. We negotiate. Just like unions have done for two centuries.”

            “There’s still the matter of the Easter eggs. Are you so self-centered that you would deny the people of Wisconsin the right to hunt and capture hard-boiled cholesterol?”

            “We don’t want to harm the decent people of Wisconsin, whether or not they’re in a union.”

            “So you will deliver Easter eggs this week!” I said, thrilled that the bunny union was relenting.

            “This is off-the-record, but everyone will get their eggs. It’s just that some people in Wisconsin may be getting 20-year-old eggs. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to preparing for a demonstration.”

            As I left, Solomon P. Bunny was multi-tasking on three different phones and two computer screens. But, he warned if the rotten eggs of the Legislature and their buddies in corporate industry don’t stop pretending how religious and patriotic they are, while consistently violating the principles that Jesus stood for, “this will be the last Easter they will ever celebrate.”

 

[Walter Brasch is a social activist and award-winning journalist. His next book is Before the First Snow, a look at America’s counter-culture and the nation’s conflicts between oil-based and “clean” nuclear energy. The book is available at amazon.com]

 

 

 

Weekly Audit: Republicans' Budget Declares War on Medicare

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The Republicans are poised to unveil a model budget on Tuesday that would effectively end Medicare by privatizing it, Steve Benen reports in the Washington Monthly. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) is touting the budget as a strategy to reduce the national debt.

Ryan’s plan would turn Medicare from a single-payer system to a “premium support” system. “Premium support” is a euphemism for the government giving up to $15,000 per person, per year, to insurance companies to defray the cost of a health insurance policy.

As Benen points out, privatizing Medicare does nothing to contain health care costs. On the contrary, as insurance customers weary of double-digit premium increases can attest, private insurers have a miserable track record of containing costs. They excel at denying care and coverage, but that’s not the same thing.

The only way the government would save money under Ryan’s proposal is by paying a flat rate in vouchers. Medicare covers the full cost of medical treatments, but private insurers are typically much less generous. So, after paying into Medicare all their working lives, Americans currently 55 and younger would get vouchers for part of their health insurance and still have to pay out-of-pocket to approach the level of benefits that Medicare currently provides.

Taking aim at Medicaid

The poor are easy targets for Republican budget-slashing, Jamelle Bouie writes on TAPPED. Ryan’s proposal would also cut $1 trillion over the next 10 years from Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, by eliminating federal matching and providing all state funding through block grants. Most of this money would come from repealing the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which is slated to add 15 million people to Medicaid.

Block grants are cuts in disguise. Currently, Medicaid is an entitlement program, which means that states have to enroll everyone who is eligible, regardless of the state’s ability to pay. In return, the states get federal matching funds for each person in the program. Ryan and the Republicans want to change Medicaid into a block grant program where the federal government simply gives each state a lump sum to spend on Medicaid. The states want to use this new found “flexibility” to cut benefits, narrow eligibility criteria, and generally gut the program.

This is incredibly short-sighted. The current structure of Medicaid ensures extra federal funding for every new patient. So when unemployment rises and large numbers of new patients become eligible for Medicaid, the states get extra federal money for each of them. But with a block grant, the states would just have to stretch the existing block grants or find money from somewhere else in their budgets. Medicaid rolls surge during bad economic times, so a block grant system could make state budget crises even worse.

Ryan’s proposal has no chance of becoming law as long as Democrats control the Senate. The main purpose of the document is to lay out a platform for the 2012 elections.

Fake debt crisis

In The Nation, sociologist and activist Frances Fox Piven argues that the Republicans are hyping the debt threat to justify cuts to social programs:

Corporate America’s unprovoked assault on working people has been carried out by manufacturing a need for fiscal austerity. We are told that there is no more money for essential human services, for the care of children, or better public schools, or to help lower the cost of a college education. The fact is that big banks and large corporations are hoarding trillions in cash and using tax loopholes to bankrupt our communities.

She notes that Republican-backed tax cuts for the wealthy are a major contributor to the debt.

Jesus was a non-union carpenter?

Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones reports on the religious right’s crusade against unions. He notes that James Dobson of the socially conservative Family Research Council tweeted: “Pro-family voters should celebrate WI victory b/c public & private sector union bosses have marched lock-step w/liberal social agenda.”

Harkinson reports that the Family Research Council is backing the Republican incumbent, David Prosser, in today’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election–a battle that has become a proxy fight over Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill:

The FRC’s new political action committee, the Faith, Family, Freedom Fund, is airing ads on 34 Wisconsin radio stations in an effort to influence the April 5 judicial election that could ultimately decide the fate of the law. The ads target Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who’s running against a conservative incumbent, David Prosser, for a seat on the state Supreme Court. If elected, Kloppenburg wouldalter the balance on the court in favor of Democrats, giving them the ability to invalidate the recently enacted ban on public-employee collective bargaining. “Liberals see her as their best hope to advance their political agenda and strike down laws passed by a legislature and governor elected by the people,” say the ads. “A vote for Prosser is a vote to keep politics out of the Supreme Court.”

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times argues that recalling Republican state senators in Wisconsin is not enough to defend workers’ rights from Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union onslaught.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Massive Protest In Wisconsin Shows Walker’s Overreach

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

About 100,000 people gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s new anti-collective bargaining law. The state Senate hurriedly past the bill without a quorum last Wednesday. Roger Bybee of Working In These Times reports:

The rally featured 50 farmers on tractors roaring around the Capitol to show their support for public workers and union representatives from across the nation, stressing the importance of the Wisconsin struggle. Protesters were addressed by a lineup of fiery speakers including fillmaker Michael Moore, the Texas populist radio broadcaster Jim Hightower, TV host Laura Flanders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and The Progressive editor Matt Rothschild, among others.

The bill is law, but the fight is far from over. The Wisconsin Democratic Party says it already has 45% of the signatures it needs to recall 8 Republican state senators. So far, canvassers have collected 56,000 signatures, up from 14,000 last weekend. The surge in signature gathering is another sign that the Walker government’s abrupt push to pass the bill has energized the opposition.

Polling bolsters the impression that Walker overreached by forcing the bill through with a dubious procedural trick. Simeon Talley of Campus Progress notes that, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans oppose efforts to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Jamelle Bouie of TAPPED notes that the enthusiasm gap that helped elect Scott Walker last year has disappeared. In June 2o10, 58% of Democrats said they were certain to vote compared to 67% of Republicans. In March 2011, 86% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans surveyed said they would certainly vote.

Firefighters shut down bank

Wisconsin firefighters found a way to get back at one of Scott Walker’s most generous donors, Madison’s M&I Bank, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd reports in AlterNet. Firefighters Local 311 President Joe Conway put a call out to his members who banked with M&I to “Move Your Money.” Firefighters withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings in cashiers checks. The beleaguered bank closed its doors at 3pm on March 10.

John Nichols of the Nation reports that other unions got in on the act. He quotes a pamphlet distributed by Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 565:

“M&I execs gave more money than even the Koch Brothers to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin GOP,” the message goes. “M&I got a $1.7 billion bailout while its CEO gets an $18 million golden parachute. Tell M&I Bank: Back Politicians Who Take Away Our Rights (and) We Take Away Your Business.”

Nichols explains that the next big step in the fight to overturn the bill will be the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, set for April 5. Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg is challenging conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Legal analysts have raised serious questions about the bill and the process by which it was passed. A court challenge to Walker’s law might stand a better chance if a liberal justice replaces the conservative pro-corporate Prosser.

Guess what? We’re not broke

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly takes on a GOP talking point, the myth that the United States is broke. It’s a convenient claim for those who wish to make massive cuts to popular programs without having to justify taking them away. If we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money. If it’s a choice between cuts and bankruptcy, cuts suddenly seem not only acceptable, but inevitable.

But the United States has a $15 trillion economy, immense natural resources, a highly educated workforce, and countless other economic advantages. The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it’s extreme inequality of distribution. Over the last 20 years, 56% of income growth has been funneled to the top 1% of the population, with fully one third of that money going to the richest one-tenth of one percent.

Benen notes that the Republicans didn’t think we were broke when they were advocating for a $538 billion tax-cut package, which wasn’t offset by a dime of cuts.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Audit: Standoff Continues in Wisconsin

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to thwart the passage of a draconian anti-union have no plans to return.

On Sunday night, a Wall Street Journal blog reported that the senators planned to return soon. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly found it odd that the piece didn’t contain any direct quotes from the exiled Democrats. The claim that the Democrats were planning to return rested on a paraphrase of State Sen. Mike Miller said about the Democrats coming back. Miller says the Journal misconstrued his remarks and that the Dems are only coming back “when collective bargaining is off the table.”

It would be an odd time for Democrats to return. Republican governor Scott Walker has offered them zero concessions. Furthermore, as Benen observes, Walker’s popularity is plummeting. The latest poll by the Wisconsin Research Institute puts the governor’s approval rating at 43%, with 53% disapproving. A majority of respondents had favorable opinions of state Senate Democrats, public employee unions, and teachers’ unions.

Benen writes:

The significance of these polls can’t be overstated — they stiffen Democratic spines, while making Republicans increasingly nervous about standing behind an unpopular governor with an unpopular plan.

In YES! Magazine, Amy B. Dean explains why every American should care about the situation in Wisconsin. The collective bargaining rights of public employees are the central issue in this standoff. Walker is testing a radical new approach to unions and several other Republican governors are poised to follow his model if he succeeds. It is naive to assume that the war on unions will end with the public sector.

Jobs gap

Writing at The Nation, Chris Hayes explains why Washington doesn’t care about jobs. Hayes argues that Washington elites are insulated from the toll of unemployment by class and geography. The jobless rate for workers with college degrees is only 4.2%, which is less than half of the official unemployment rate of 9% and a quarter of the 16.1% underemployment rate. (The underemployment rate counts both the jobless who are still looking for work and those who have given up and left the labor force.) Furthermore, Hayes notes, the unemployment rate in greater Washington, D.C. is only 5.7%, which is lower than that of any other major city in America. He writes:

What these two numbers add up to is a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession. As much as the pernicious influence of big money and the plutocrats’ pseudo-obsession with budget deficits, it is this social distance between decision-makers and citizens that explains the almost surreal detachment of the current Washington political conversation from the economic realities working-class, middle-class and poor people face.

Even as the overall unemployment rate falls, economic recovery proves elusive for many workers of color, Shani O. Hilton reports at Colorlines.com. The February jobs report shows that the economy added 192,000 jobs, with overall unemployment falling by a tenth of a percentage point, bringing joblessness to its lowest rate since 2009. However, the unemployment rates for black and Hispanic workers remained fixed in February, at 15.3% and 11.6%, respectively.

Hilton notes that even if the economy were to add 200,000 jobs a month, it would take three years to bring general employment up to pre-recession levels.

Public innovation

The stereotype is that the private sector drives innovation. However, as Monica Potts reports in The American Prospect, industry’s well-deserved reputation for innovation is built on a foundation of publicly funded basic research. Conservatives often argue that the private sector would pick up the slack if public funding for basic research were reduced. Potts argues that public funding for basic research is essential because companies will naturally gravitate towards research that has an immediate payoff, instead of investing in cultivating deeper scientific understanding through basic research.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

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