Union-busting in state capitols

NYHTC — March 07, 2011

In Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and other states, government workers are fighting hard to protect their unions against attempts by Republican governors and legislatures to crush any viable political opposition to their rule. At a time when people are rising up against repressive dictatorships in the Middle East, a new anti-Democracy movement is gaining frightening momentum here, in the birthplace of modern democracy, led by a group calling itself the Tea Party. The outcome of the battles these unionized public employees are fighting on behalf of all citizens who value freedom and self-government, will have enormous consequences for our country.

Despite this fact, the mainstream media's coverage of these important events too often lacks depth and honesty. With rare exceptions, such as Paul Krugman of the New York Times, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, most journalists and opinion-makers purposely obscure or ignore the real reasons public sector workers and their unions have come under attack.. .

Bald-faced Republican governors and state legislators are pointing the finger of blame at government employees to explain the economic and financial disasters their right-wing policies have created. According to their ludicrous narrative, monstrous state budget deficits are the result of overprivileged and overpaid union members, and their high wages and health and pension benefits.

To most honest people of course, this doesn't ring true, because it isn't true. The government workers being vilified and victimized are people we know. They are our family members, our neighbors, the teachers at our children's schools, our postal carriers, police officers and fire fighters, the sanitation workers who keep our neighborhoods livable, the janitors who work at night cleaning public buildings the list goes on and on. In short, they are people like all of us, ordinary people who work hard and aren't getting rich but thanks to their unions, make a living wage and have health and pension benefits.

This is not reason to punish government workers; in fact, good wages, a pension, and health benefits are elements of the American dream, of what workers in this country have always aspired to. Equally, unions should not be demonized because they have fought for and won them for their members.

Why then are so many politicians focusing their attacks on unions and their members, instead of on Wall Street money men, hedge fund operators, corporate executives, and bankers? And what about the super wealthy individuals who have amassed private fortunes of staggering size? Their financial machinations and political clout have far more to do with the existence of budget deficits than do the wages and health and pension benefits of bus drivers, librarians, school crossing guards, and other public workers.The reason has to do with the rapidly escalating aggregation of wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer powerful individuals. The accumulation of these super fortunes has resulted in the erosion of one of the most basic hallmarks of democracy in our society: "one person, one vote" is being replaced by a political system in which moneyed individuals and corporations command politicians' attention, and influence their actions, through campaign contributions. Their wealth enables them to wield incredible power, and when they talk, politicians pay very close attention and respond by delivering what their wealthy contributors want. The needs and concerns of the rest of us get much less attention.

How wealthy are these individuals? By way of just one example, Mr. Reich notes in his analysis of the current battles that in 2010, the 13 top hedge fund managers each earned an average of $1 billion; one of them took home $5 billion.

In this changed world, unions, public sector and private sector, are the single most powerful force capable of standing up to the megawealthy. They fight for working people and for programs that benefit them and their families and their communities. Unions also have two important assets that the Big Money people want to take away from them. They have enough money to fight big battles and to make contributions to politicians who care what happens to workers, their families and communities, and the very fragile among us, for example, the elderly and the working poor. In addition, unions have members all across the country and are ready to volunteer their time to campaign for politicians who will pay attention to their needs.

Even with all they have, the billionaires want the field to themselves. They want to keep getting tax breaks that other people don't get, and they don't want to have to worry about legislative measures keeping them from doing whatever they need to do to increase their profit margins, even when it is at the expense of their employees, the environment, or an entire community or state.

Precisely because unions can fight back against the political dominance of the super rich, the billionaires want unions not merely defeated but crushed. They have enlisted their political servants to do this by legislatively stripping private sector unions of their ability to function, thus depriving them of their power and their resources. They also benefit when working people can be set to fighting against one another think "tea party." Who benefits when we fight each other instead of focusing on them? They do!

So, at the end of the day, the fierce struggles unfolding in various state legislatures throughout the country are not really about budget deficits. It's critically important to understand that they are really about preserving and protecting democracy, about having a government that is not just by the wealthy and for the wealthy. That is why all workers as well as students, the unemployed, and the elderly have a tremendous stake in the outcome of the war the wealthy have mounted against unions.

Krugman, Paul. Wisconsin Power Play. New York Times. February 20, 2011.

Reich, Robert. Exposing the Republicans' 3-part Strategy to Tear the Middle Class Apart -- Let's Stop Them In Wisconsin. AlterNet. February 20, 2011.

Photos courtesy of Matt Baran