February 2011, Week 3


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Fri, 18 Feb 2011 19:35:13 -0500
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Labor's Last Stand

Jane McAlevey 

The Nation February 16, 2011


Emboldened by November's election results, corporations
and their right-wing allies have launched what they hope
will be their final offensive against America's unions.
Their immediate target is government workers' unions.
While New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie
has gained national fame by beating up on public school
teachers, the threat to unionized workers is playing out
in all fifty states, to the drumbeat in the media about
states going broke because of government workers' wages,
pensions and benefits. By late January, with the
swearing-in ceremonies complete in the twenty-one states
where Republicans have a "trifecta," controlling the
governor's office and both statehouses, hundreds of
bills had been introduced seeking to hem in unions if
not ban them altogether. On February 11, Wisconsin's new
Republican Governor Scott Walker made what amounts to a
declaration of all-out war on public sector workers in
his historically progressive state, moving to deprive
them of the very right to bargain collectively on
matters essential to their economic security.

Walker's gambit has rightly elicited outrage, but
considering the breadth of the attack unions are facing
nationally, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Right-to-work legislation has been filed in twelve
states; this is in addition to the twenty-two that
already have such laws on the books. In technical terms,
this legislation makes it illegal for employers to
condition employment on union membership or the
equivalent dues payments even when a majority of workers
vote to form a union; practically speaking, it makes
building and maintaining a strong union very difficult,
which in turn makes it harder to organize new workplaces
because there are few positive examples of unions to
point to. In Virginia, the corporations and right-wing
ideologues decided that the existing right-to-work law
wasn't sufficient, and introduced a measure to embed the
right-to-work provisions in the state Constitution.
Three more states--Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin--are
expected to have bills introduced converting their legal
status to right-to-work.

Alabama passed legislation in January that bans public
employee unions from collecting dues unless the unions
first prove that none of the money will be used for
supporting election campaigns. In every subsequent year
after the initial certification, the union must submit
itemized reports accounting for how its money is being
spent. This law, sold as "paycheck protection" by the
right but known as "paycheck deception" among union
activists, has been introduced in four other states this
year, including Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and
Missouri. In California there has already been ballot
initiative language submitted to do the same. Using a
variety of legal tools, these measures prohibit the use
of union dues for political activity. Union advocates
are expecting twelve more states to file bills or
initiatives banning the collection of union monies for

Building and construction unions are facing their own
daunting lineup of bills that would gut prevailing wage
laws and what are known as Project Labor Agreements
(PLAs). These measures facilitate collective bargaining
and the division of labor for unionized construction
jobs, particularly construction jobs with public
financing. In twenty states there is legislation
expected to ban PLAs. In Iowa the new governor, Terry
Branstad, was so excited to take up the challenge, he
undid PLAs with his first executive order. The new
governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has pledged to eliminate
prevailing wage laws. It's hard to say whether Missouri
or Maine will beat him to his goal, though: Missouri's
legislation to ban prevailing wages has been introduced,
and the new governor of Maine appointed the head of the
building and construction industry organization to the
position of state legislative director, a sure sign that
he's serious about eliminating such laws. The AFL-CIO
says it anticipates anti-prevailing wage laws in fifteen

It is government workers, however, who face attacks in
every state. Teacher tenure is being targeted in five
states: New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, Idaho and Florida.
Laws that would allow parents, by petition, to "trigger"
an entire school district to move to charter schools or
to voucher programs are expected in at least eleven
states. States that are considering either weakening or
removing entirely the ability of public sector workers
to bargain collectively include not only Wisconsin but
Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New
Hampshire and Oklahoma. Measures to dismantle benefits
for government workers are expected in some form in all
fifty states. Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, are
pushing to allow states to declare bankruptcy, which
would enable them to break their agreements that cover
the pensions of hundreds of thousands of retired
government workers. On top of all this, President Obama
has called for a freeze on federal workers' pay.

At the same time, a push to privatize public assets and
services is mounting, posing a dire threat to public
workers. Groups like In the Public Interest
(inthepublicinterest.org [1]) are working to hold back
the privatization tide, but the momentum is on the other
side. Donald Cohen, the group's chair, notes a recent
shift in the nature of the opposition. "The entire world
of public administration is being driven by a new cartel
of consulting firms who offer their services to elected
leaders--peddling themselves as efficiency experts," he
says, explaining that these firms are increasingly
playing the role that used to be filled by right-wing
think tanks. "They are accounting firms, law firms and
more who promote privatization, and they make money for
completing the deal. And yet it has very little to do
with efficiency and probably nothing to do with actually
improving public services."

It isn't as if these types of attacks on unions are new;
what's different is their scale, intensity and real
possibility of success. After outspending unions in
November's election by an estimated 4-to-1 margin,
corporations and their allies are exploiting the fiscal
crises across the nation to drive a stake into the heart
of what is left of organized labor--public workers'
unions. According to the just-released Bureau of Labor
Statistics annual report for 2010, the overall union
membership rate in America continued its slide, dropping
from 12.3 percent to 11.9 percent. But perhaps most
striking is the way unionization is skewed when
comparing private sector workers, who are just 6.9
percent unionized, and public sector workers, 36.2
percent of whom belong to unions. The public sector, in
other words, is labor's last stronghold.

Grover Norquist laid out a sort of blueprint for the
current right-wing assault in the February 2001 American
Spectator. Identifying labor unions as the first of
"five pillars" of Democratic strength, he calculated
that they "raise $8 billion a year from 16 million union
members paying an average of $500 dues," and outlined a
game plan for destroying union power, key to the right's
larger mission of abolishing all regulations that impede
its agenda, from environmental laws to occupational
safety to affirmative action.

But, of course, the right's campaign against labor has
been decades in the making. In 1975 the overall
unionization rate in the private sector was 25 percent.
Thanks to the class war that has been waged since
then--involving trade liberalization, radical
reorganization of global finance rules, unionbusting,
deindustrialization, rejiggered accounting rules and
more--Norquist's goal is now within reach for the right.
According to union expert and author Bill Fletcher Jr.,
"There has been a three-decade campaign by the
neoliberal Democrats and the right wing to destroy the
base of the strength of the American middle class, which
can be boiled down to unions and government regulation
of corporate excess. As a result, unionization rates and
corresponding pay and benefits now appear higher in the
government sector, and the same forces are now attacking
government workers' unions."

The irony, according to Janice Fine, professor at the
Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, is
that in the 1960s it was the private sector workers who
earned more than their government counterparts. "Back
then, the private sector unions helped the government
workers get organized as part of a program to raise the
standards for all workers," she notes. Now, as Ed Ott,
former director of the New York City Central Labor
Council, puts it, "After thirty years of wage
suppression in the private sector, big business wants to
compare wages and benefits between the private sector
and the government sector." Republican presidential
hopeful Tim Pawlenty did just that in a recentWall
Street Journal op-ed. "Unionized public employees are
making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and
enjoying greater job security than the working families
forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits
and debt," he wrote. These claims are distorted [see
Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson, "The Betrayal of
Public Workers[2]"], but to the extent that public
workers do enjoy hard-won union benefits, they have a
target painted on their back.

The stakes for both political parties in this struggle
are high, because where the campaign to gut public
sector unions succeeds, Republicans will be poised for
almost certain electoral gains. In general, across the
nation, the lower the rate of unionization, the redder
the state. And in the bluest states, the public sector
dominates the union scene: in New York, for example, the
most unionized state, the rate among government workers
is 70.5 percent, next to 13.7 percent in the private
sector. In California the unionization rate among
government workers is 56.6 percent, compared with 9.3
percent among the private sector workforce.

There is a strong correlation, moreover, between red
states, right-to-work laws, an overall worse quality of
life for the average worker or poor person, and a more
hostile climate for progressives, from environmentalists
to civil rights activists. The average worker in a
right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her
counterpart in a pro-worker state. Twenty-one percent
more people lack health insurance. Late last year,
immigration advocates anticipated Arizona-like measures
in twenty-two states, eleven of which are controlled by
Republicans. Of those, seven are right-to-work states.
Not surprisingly, three that are not--Ohio, Pennsylvania
and Indiana--are where the attack on government workers'
unions is the strongest.

Given the strategic importance of this fight, you would
expect the progressive community to be rallying to mount
a loud and vigorous counterattack. But the response has
been anemic at best. Unions and progressives need to
reset and develop a strategy quickly if they are to
defend the ground they still hold, let alone recapture
what has been lost. For almost forty years, the right
has been systematically tearing apart the achievements
of unions and social justice movements. The first
challenge is to own up to the ways progressives and
unions have failed to counter this onslaught.

Take the teachers unions. In the late 1960s they fought
against community control of the New York City schools,
sparking tension with the black community that lingers
even now. As Fletcher argues, this rift is reflective of
some of the deeper issues facing unions. "The AFT, at
least until fairly recently, in confronting the attacks
on public education, tended toward a very defensive
posture. Rarely did they contextualize their fight as
part of the larger fight to defend the public sector,"
he explains. "Their fight almost had the appearance of
being a fight to defend a particular craft under assault
rather than to defend a key component of civilization."
As a result, Fletcher points out, neither the American
Federation of Teachers nor the National Education
Association has been able to assemble significant
coalitions for education reform, and even in many
progressive circles are seen--unfairly--as a hindrance to
education rather than as a key champion.

Likewise, 1199/SEIU alienated progressives with its
selfish dealmaking under former New York Governor George
Pataki, a Republican. For example, when Blue Cross Blue
Shield privatized, the healthcare workers union brazenly
claimed the one-time windfall of money to pay for wage
increases, in exchange for endorsing the man who was
stepping on every other member of the traditional
Democratic coalition.

The lukewarm support for unions generally and for
government workers unions in particular in the
progressive world is partly a legacy of such missteps by
unions themselves. But in addition, there's a more
fundamental source of tension that is often ignored:
most people who constitute the opinion-making class
among liberals and progressives are upper middle class
and mostly white. The progressives in academia and
journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all
movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class
that has little to no contact with unions. Even when
there is an intellectual understanding of labor's role
in US history, there is often a lack of sympathy about
the need for unions today. This is particularly true
among liberal and progressive foundations, where support
for unions is often a hot-button issue with boards of
directors and top executives. Because these foundations
represent the employer class for the social change
movement, this has impeded the development of more
effective strategies to counter the right-wing agenda.

Even among unions the fissures run deep. In New York,
for example, where newly elected Democratic Governor
Andrew Cuomo has made slashing the state budget his
single-minded mission, organized labor has not put up a
united front against the cutbacks. The construction
unions were especially eager to sell out the government
workers unions for their own benefit. Ott explains how
this works: "With the crashing economy, unemployment in
the building trades in NYC is now somewhere in the 35
percent range, and some political entity comes along and
says to the trades, 'Hey, we will produce some jobs for
your members on the capital side if you support us
politically in this revenue fight.'"

This logic is not unusual for construction unions, which
operate largely as craft unions--representing workers
with a specific craft or skill, who have the ability to
negotiate for themselves by withholding that skill. The
construction unions have a long history of being an
elitist labor force that has been used by politicians to
split the union movement.

Rutgers's Janice Fine says that overcoming divisions
will take real work among unions. "When unionization
rates and corresponding pay and benefits are so
asymmetrical between the public and private sectors,
unions have to take very deliberate steps to preserve
solidarity," she says, citing historical examples of
public unions providing support to private sector unions
by boycotting products, stores and companies, and
supporting union products, banks and hotels. "This
tradition is gone, and union members need to go back to
consuming in a way that supports the unionized class.
And private sector unions need to resist the short-term
gain of undercutting public sector unions' wages,
benefits and pensions as it will only reinforce a race
to the bottom that has no place for unions of any kind."

The entire house of labor and all progressives must
understand that we have not had a moment as threatening
as this in our lifetime. The right is making the
connections--attacking public employee unions and public
services at the same time in order to wage complete war
on the poor, people of color, and the working and middle
classes of this country. Sadly, the left has not made
the connections. To the extent that public sector
unions, private sector unions and those fighting budget
cuts allow themselves to be divided, they are playing
into the right's hands.

Assuming unions and progressives can focus on the
enormity of the challenge before us, let's review some
of the tools and knowledge in our arsenal to defeat the
antigovernment and antiunion offensive.

In Nevada, where I led a union that had been heavily
dominated by public sector workers, we successfully beat
back a divide-and-conquer unionbusting campaign waged by
right-wing forces who had teamed up with the Democrats
who led county government. In 2003 a Democratic county
executive named Thom Reilly aligned with the Chamber of
Commerce and the Nevada Taxpayers Union to produce a
report that sounded the same themes as the current
national campaign against government workers. In a media
blitz, Reilly blasted public workers for earning more
than their private sector counterparts. With a Democrat
as the messenger, liberals were confused, including many
union members.

In response, we set out first with a massive campaign to
educate the rank and file about the coming attack. In
the first year, we organized meetings with more than
2,000 government workers by designing an educational
module distributed to almost every unionized facility at
break times and shift changes. At every union meeting
for two years, attention was directed to the economy;
the class war against all workers; how the right had
come first for private sector unions and now were coming
for public sector unions; and the need to "draw a line
in the desert" to raise expectations, so that workers
could unite to reclaim what they deserved.

We talked openly and often about how, if the county
executive wanted to point out the disparity in the pay
of unionized government workers versus that of workers
in the nonunionized private sector, he was right. But
rather than accepting that government workers--including
many people of color and women--who still had a decent
job with the ability to retire should surrender what
they had to the lowest common denominator, we challenged
them to get behind two big initiatives. The first was to
organize the private sector workers as fast as possible
so that we could bring them up to the same standard. The
second was to change the image of the government workers
by making the quality of the government services reflect
the highest standards possible. We wanted "government
workers" to have a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of
Approval in the public's mind.

We kept at these efforts over the next several years,
and by the time the government workers arrived at their
next round of collective bargaining, the county
executive's message--that county workers were overpaid
compared with their private sector counterparts--had lost
its force. For one thing, we had raised private sector
standards through organizing and negotiating strong
contracts. In fact, in a two-year period, the private
sector hospital workers went from wages and benefits far
below those at the big public hospital to wages higher
than and benefits catching up to those of government
workers. And through it all, we elevated an internal
education campaign and external message framed around
the American Dream--who had stolen it and how the way to
bring it back was by organizing, bargaining and setting
higher standards for all workers. It was crucial that
despite lots of strains, union solidarity held together
to beat back one ballot initiative after another that
sought to all but eliminate the already small tax base
in Nevada.

We also took on the libertarian contempt for government
that was so popular in Nevada--which was prominently
displayed in hateful editorial cartoons like those that
are now common in states like New Jersey, depicting
government workers as fat, lazy, overpaid bureaucrats.
We did this in part by engaging the members in a newly
designed training program for union stewards aimed at
reshaping the grievance process for a union whose
workers perform services for the community rather than
assembly line work on a machine. But it was only after
thousands of conversations that we were able to help
workers--even government workers--overcome their
suspicions of government.

We know that Americans are predisposed to be more
suspicious of government than they are of unions. Union
organizer Fernando Gapasin, co-author of Solidarity
Divided, says, "Karl Rove did an analysis of the core
values of Americans, and he took that individualism is
one core idea. For a lot of people this translates to
the corporations as the highest form of someone's
individual aspirations. For a lot of people individual
responsibility and individual achievement gets
confusing, and it leads to workers telling me that if
they were laid off, they would refuse to collect
unemployment, because if they or their families can't
take care of themselves, there's something wrong with
them." The Norquist forces are, in effect, running a
message that aligns neatly with the dominant cultural
narrative in America. Unions and progressives have a
message and solutions that are seemingly running against
this narrative. This is precisely why organizers and
organizing are required, not simply mobilizing and

Liberals and progressives don't understand why, in poll
after poll, Americans support Social Security, Medicare
and money for their local parks and other services but
oppose "big government." If we want to close the gap in
the often bimodal results of polling, we don't need more
polling: we need well-trained and highly skilled
organizers who can help facilitate conversations among
next-door neighbors and co-workers. We have good
"framers." We have smart policy wonks with big degrees
who can write good policy. We have lawyers to defend the
policy. And we have no one in any serious way out
talking with Americans about this crisis. It's
organizers who help people in large numbers to come to
the self-realization that things aren't working and that
it isn't their fault. Good organizing is really the only
way that workers, the unemployed and the poor can
overcome the impulse to blame themselves for the crisis
they face. Yet liberal foundations often balk at funding
such efforts, believing that it won't add up to policy
change and channeling money instead to policy, legal and
"communications" work.

Unions and progressives need to return to engaging large
numbers of people in one-on-one conversations. Unions
should kick-start the campaign by sponsoring and
unleashing the biggest Union Summer program of all time
and pay student interns, and unemployed rank-and-file
workers, to work with union groups and nonunion allies
in a mass education campaign that seeks to change the
narrative from "We all go down together" to "It's time
to return to the American Dream we all deserve." Unions
must stop pretending to be engaging the base by setting
up call centers or buying cellphones for their members.
Foundations must stop pretending that unions don't
matter, and that messaging strategies can overcome
America's cultural norms of extreme individualism. Real
conversations, where people have a chance to understand
the war that is being waged against them and the power
they must build, are the only thing that will save us.

Links: [1] http://inthepublicinterest.org [2]


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