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PORTSIDELABOR  November 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDELABOR November 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Beyond Ohio: Why Public Sector Unions Need to Show Solidarity for Private Sector Workers

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Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Tue, 8 Nov 2011 20:22:07 -0500

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Beyond Ohio:
Why Public Sector Unions Need to Show
Solidarity for Private Sector Workers
By Jefferson Cowie
The New Republic
November 8, 2011
http://www.tnr.com/article/97160/ohio-referendum-unions-public-sb-5

Pro-labor forces appear en route to win an important
battle in Ohio on Tuesday, but the greater war they're
engaged in is very much undecided. As significant as
issues like taxes, bargaining, and benefits are for the
health of the country's public sector unions, their
real savior has largely gone unspoken in this most
recent battle--namely, the bolstering of pay and
benefits in the private sector. Progressives will no
doubt be tempted to celebrate their victory--not least
because it marks a setback for Governor Kasich, and a
good omen for Obama's struggle for this key swing state
in 2012--but they should also be wary of myopia.
Anti-labor forces certainly have their eyes set on the
broader terrain.

When Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker
recently declared that "public employees can't be
haves, while private sector employees are have-nots,"
he was peddling an obvious half-truth, but also
suggesting the outlines of a pernicious anti-labor
strategy. Republicans gladly acknowledge the divide in
our economy that often places many of private sector
workers on the side of have-nots--only to exploit it by
mobilizing resentment against those with relative
security. Public unions should be thinking of ways to
help pull up their embattled fellow laborers in the
private sector--or risk being dragged down themselves.

THE LATEST POLLING in Ohio gives the pro-labor forces a
25 point lead in the referendum to repeal legislation
that effectively gutted collective bargaining for the
state's public workers. The unions appear to be
succeeding for a number of reasons. First, there does
seem to be an important groundswell--from Wall Street to
Oakland--against these dramatic attacks on working
people. Beyond that, the most important factor is
labor's pouring of massive funds into the struggle,
which puts this on a financial par with a stiff
gubernatorial race.

Also at play is Republican hubris,
evidenced by their inclusion of firefighters and police
in the legislation. Safety workers are both beloved and
conservative--at least until their turf is attacked.
Then they tend to shun their social conservatism and
turn out the troops. But the promise of Tuesday's vote
as a pro-labor harbinger is undermined by the
persistent weakness of private sector unions in Ohio
and elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, the successes of
public sector employees have always been closely linked
with that of laborers in the private sector: it's
largely private sector workers, after all, who are
asked to pay for public sector employees through their
tax receipts. Having the mega-rich pony up will
certainly help--especially in a place like New York
City--but outside the worlds of finance capital, working
people are going to be paying a good share bills.
Unfortunately, the numbers here tell a dispiriting
story. Today 36.2 percent of public workers are
organized--a slightly higher number than the private
sector was even in the heyday of American labor history
in the 1950s. Private workers today, in contrast, have
tumbled to a mere 6.9 percent--a figure suggestive of
the wider rot in pay and benefits among unorganized
workers.

It doesn't take a labor scholar to see the
problem here: A relatively large and well-remunerated
public sector is teetering precariously on a rickety
and crumbling private-sector working class. No wonder
public workers fall under right wing attack as some
sort of aristocracy of labor. This isn't simply a
matter of mean spirited attacks, as these issues
genuinely tap into private sector workers' ability to
pay. We know that once we control for educational
level, public sector workers are not paid significantly
more than private sectors workers, but their benefits
do outstrip those in the private sector--and they've
often given up pay at the bargaining table to pursue
those better benefits.

A glance at recent history puts
this divide between public and private workers into
even starker relief. Today, private sector workers look
with either envy or scorn at public sector workers, but
it used to be the other way around: When public
employee unions got their start, their goal was to
catch-up to the better-off private sector workers. In
the mid-20th century's age of "industrial pluralism,"
things looked promising for all workers. Wisconsin's
decision to grant unionization rights to public
employees in 1959 and John F. Kennedy's 1962 Executive
Order providing unionization rights to federal workers
laid the groundwork for a widespread expansion of
public sector unionization. By 1970, twenty-two states
had enacted collective bargaining rights for their
employees, allowing them to match the quality of their
remuneration with their private sector brothers and
sisters.

By the mid 1970s, the incredible growth of
public sector unions began to look a bit like the
upsurge of industrial unions in the 1930s. By 1975, in
fact, a national public employees relations act of some
sort--often thought of as a "Wagner Act for public
workers"--seemed unavoidable. (Had such legislation
passed, it would have taken collective bargaining out
of the morass of state-level politics that public
unions are currently struggling with.)

Despite signs of labor's private sector rebirth in
the early seventies, the decade ended in retrenchment.
Core industrial unions lost their base, cultural
concerns trumped economic issues, and the Left began
to believe unions to be part of the problem not the
solution. Even then, the rising conservative movement
tried to catalyze divisions between public and private
unions in the midst of a set of city and state fiscal
crises that parallel our own. While public sector
unions only hit a plateau, private unions collapsed
into freefall. By the end of the seventies, the
densities of public and private sector unionization
crossed paths--public unionization was on the way up
and private on the way down.

Today, there are, in real numbers, more unionized
public workers than there are unionized private sector
workers. To the extent that public sector unionism has
always rested upon the resources of private sector
workers, that split means trouble. Public sector
unionization has often faced a rough road, because of
the sketchy right to strike against the public good, of
course, but mostly because the taxpayers pay the bills.
When the taxpayers are flush, it's much easier to argue
that we deserve a first class public sector.

So rather than simply organizing to protect the
achievements of that diminished number of workers
who are still unionized, progressives should be
thinking about how to spread those privileges to
even more workers. In that way, private sector
workers wouldn't think of their public sector
colleagues as adversaries in terms of their tax
money--they would think of them as their
allies on a much more pressing issue: how to pry more
wages out of private employers. That said, those
seeking to expand organized labor will have their work
cut out for them.

After years of being exposed to
conservative messaging, much of the nation remains
skeptical about organized labor. Less than half of the
nation approves of unions today, a figure that
approaches historic lows. Compare that with polling
back in the 1950s (when collective bargaining worked as
advertised), and three fourths of Americans approved of
unions. The Occupy Wall Street movements suggests that
the spark for the national discussion of inequality may
come from outside of the formal labor movement, but
it's hard to imagine right now a more efficient or
proven way of actually redistributing wealth than
bargaining collectively with one's employer.

Progressives will certainly cheer if and when the Ohio
referendum is defeated, as well they should. But let's
not pop too much champagne yet. No matter what happens
in Ohio, public sector workers everywhere will be
vulnerable until workers can find ways to make the
private sector give up a greater share of its wealth to
its workers. The divide among workers between haves and
have-nots isn't sustainable for much longer. What
remains to be seen is whether it will be resolved to
the benefit of workers at all.

Jefferson Cowie teaches at Cornell University and
is the author of Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the
Last Days of the Working Class.

____________________________________________

PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.

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