One might think that a war is raging between politicians and public sector workers. Recently elected Republican governors have threatened to use the equivalent of weapons of mass destruction on state workers by passing legislation that would outlaw strikes, rescind the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, reduce pensions, and require workers to provide explicit agreement before their dues can be used for political campaigns.
But there is technically no war at all, for in war two contending and opposed factions must meet on the battlefield. In this case, only one faction has appeared; thus far organized labor is nowhere to be seen. Therefore, the conflict should be more properly categorized as a massacre: public workers across the country have been forced to relinquish billions of dollars in the form of permanent wage cuts, temporary furloughs, reduced benefits, and layoffs, all without putting up a fight.
Why are the union officials exercising so much restraint in relation to this frontal assault? Because the enemy consists not just of Republicans but Democrats as well, and union officials have been operating on the assumption that relying on the Democrats for union-friendly legislation is their best defense. In fact, the Democratic Party politicians have been serving as a stalking horse for the corporations. While professing to defend the interests of working people, they have quietly promoted the interests of the rich and corporate America while simultaneously contributing to the three-decades long decline in the standard of living of the working class.
For example, The New York Times reported (March 11, 2009) in relation to the obstacles blocking the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have greatly facilitated unionizing, «Republican and business strategists said some former co-sponsors [i.e. Democrats] felt they had a free pass to back the bill when President Bush appeared likely to veto it. But now that the bill appears to have a real chance of passage, they said, some moderate senators, heavily lobbied by business, are backing off the bill, worried that it might hurt or anger their business constituents.» In other words, the Democrats only support union-friendly legislation when there is no chance of it passing.
Following President Obama’s lead in freezing the salary of federal workers, recently elected Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has indicated he will impose a one-year salary freeze on state workers, purportedly in order to reduce the state’s deficit, while at the same time letting a recent increase on the taxes on the rich expire, which will send the deficit back up.
On the other coast, recently elected Democratic governor of California Jerry Brown has declared that workers are going to have to make sacrifices and has emphasized that he is fully prepared to «do some things that organized labor doesn’t like.» In particular he, too, has plans to demand take-backs in relation to public worker pensions, as many other states have done. The California Democratic Party has gone even further, declaring its desire to raise income taxes on everyone in the state except the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.
Both Democrats and Republicans employ the same cynical strategy to attack workers. They point to the burgeoning budget deficits in their respective states, adding with a shrug: «We have no choice.» But state deficits have two underlying causes that have nothing to do with working people: (1) the recession caused by Wall Street’s recklessness, and (2) the declining tax rates on corporations and the rich.
Moreover, there is no substance to the claim that public workers are overpaid in relation to private workers. As The New York Times reported, «A raft of recent studies found that public salaries, even with benefits included, are equivalent to or lag slightly behind those of private sector workers. The Manhattan Institute, which is not terribly sympathetic to unions, studied New Jersey and concluded that teachers earned wages roughly comparable to people in the private sector with a similar education» (The New York Times, January 1, 2010).
In reality, both public and private workers are underpaid. Thanks to declining tax rates on the rich and deregulation, inequalities in wealth are shooting off the charts as money becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a small, extremely powerful elite on a level not seen since the 1920s. But instead of reining in these vast inequalities, the politicians of both parties are prepared to continue pandering to the wealthy and extend the inequalities even further at the expense of struggling working families. The illusion of equal opportunity for all is rapidly giving way to a naked truth: the working class and poor stand locked in stark opposition to the employers and rich, both poised for battle with diametrically opposed interests.
As these trends continue, the pressure will grow on organized labor to rise to the occasion and defend their members or risk becoming entirely irrelevant. But to have any impact, they will need to return to their militant roots of the 1930s. The current demonstrations led by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, where anywhere from thirty to several hundred gather to denounce a particular employer or proposed legislation, have absolutely no impact. In the 1930s picket lines surged to as many as 10,000 people and were followed by rallies of 40,000 in support of striking workers. These workers defied injunctions and fought police to prevent scabs from crossing picket lines.
We have reached a point where inequalities in wealth have gone too far. Even Ed Rogers, former staffer of H.W. Bush, has predicted (Washington Post, January 2, 2011) possible «public-sector labor strikes and demonstrations that could stray into civil disorder» in response to massive layoffs of public workers and reductions in pay and benefits. If organized labor is to defend working people, it will have to act independently of the Democratic Party and exercise real power by organizing massive demonstrations.
We urge our readers to let your voices be heard and pass resolutions in your union locals, central labor councils, and state labor federations, calling on the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize simultaneous massive demonstrations in major cities across the country in defense of social services, public education, and public workers, for job-creation programs to put 25 million people back to work, for Hands Off Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, by demanding TAX THE RICH! Working people are angry, and they expect the union movement to come to their defense. And they have a solution: a recent poll conducted by CBS and Vanity Fair concluded that as many as 61 percent of Americans said they would prefer to increase taxes on the rich in order to balance the national budget.
Only organized labor has the capacity to stand up to the powerful elite by mobilizing the majority of working people to force the politicians to pass legislation that will ensure that every single individual has the opportunity to receive a quality education, work at a job with a comfortable wage, receive proper health care when needed, and retire in dignity. Now is the time for working people to unite and use their collective strength to fight for a society that operates in everyone’s interests. Together we can make a difference.