Attacks on Public-Employee Unions Undermine the Middle Class
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It's not like we didn't see it coming.
At the very start of this year, January 2, The New York Times warned us of the coming battle with a front-page story, "Public Workers Facing Outrage in Budget Crisis." The Economist, in its January 8 issue, gave us, "The battle ahead: confronting the public-sector unions." And the January Time Magazine, "Public Employees Become Public Enemy No. 1."
So, nobody should have been surprised when public employees became enemy No. 1 in Wisconsin, whose governor and Republican-dominated Legislature are pressing a bill that would eviscerate most of the unions representing that state's employees.
Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio are likewise all considering legislation to ban various types of collective bargaining, and in Indiana, almost every Democratic member of the state's House of Representative recently boycotted a legislative session to stop a bill that would weaken collective bargaining.
What has not been clearly noted, however, despite the thousands of barrels of ink that have been spilled about this topic, is the underlying motive behind these attacks. Why, exactly, has the governor of the Badger State made destroying public-sector unions his No. 1 goal? Why are similar efforts being made in numerous other states? Why target public-sector workers and their unions? What put this on the top of the hard right's agenda? Especially because, as The New York Times noted, "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 with a similar education."
Some of the reasons are mundane. Class envy is there, for sure. Public employees are, on average, better educated and better compensated than other workers; thus, resentment by the latter can always be ginned up against the former. Tea Party-ish dislike of government in all of its forms, however irrational, can always be transmuted, by those with a motive to do so, into a passionate hostility against the government's agents and representatives, its employees.
But there is something more sophisticated at work here than merely the efforts of talk-show hosts, demagogues and right-wing politicians to stir up or even just reflect, an angry, agitated and hostile populace. That is, there is a plan at work here - let's call it, "the Plan" - and that plan is designed to accomplish the following goals:
- Defund the Democrats. This is perhaps the most transparent of the goals of the Plan, because Republicans have not been shy about pointing out how, in various states, labor union contributions of both time and money have supplied Democrats with critical support at election time. The actual numbers can be debated and most of the Republican claims of labor union dominance of the Democratic Party are overblown. The failure of Congress, even when Democrats controlled both the White House and both houses of Congress from 2008-2010, to enact any substantive federal labor law reform, is stark evidence of that. But labor generally comes back to the Democrats and Republicans, and other right-wingers recognize that disabling labor unions now will advance their legislative agenda in the long run.
- Delegitimize Government. Once public-sector unions are destroyed or damaged and the wages and benefits of public employees are slashed, the ability of government to attract and retain qualified, dedicated employees - whether teachers, bus drivers, fire fighters or police - will deteriorate. The more that happens, the greater the pressure to turn over these and all other "public" services to for-profit private companies, a trend that is already in full swing.
- Redefining the Middle Class Downward. Above all else, the attack on public employees and their unions is an effort to eliminate the one substratum of working people who still, to a large extent, maintain a truly "middle-class" existence, a life where the rent or mortgage payments may be paid, health coverage is maintained and retirement savings socked away in defined benefit pension plans, where it will actually still be available upon retirement.
It is this last motive about which the proponents of the Plan speak the least, but which is perhaps the most important. As long as some workers, those in the public sector, are still being paid decent salaries and benefits, there is an implicit message to all workers, including those in the private sector, that this type of compensation might be something which an adult worker could reasonably expect to attain. If the goal of a middle-class income for public employees can be painted as a mere utopian fantasy, workers in the private sector will lose that dream as well. In the end, it is this downward pressure on our standard of living that should have all of us concerned, and which should inspire all of us to stand next to public employees as they cling to the middle-class dream.