Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Impending Demise of Unions

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
With virtually every state facing large budget deficits (and governors pledging not to raise taxes or do anything that might harm the interests of business), programs must be cut and workers must be further squeezed. The problem for state governors is that their workers, the ones whom they must squeeze in order to shrink their deficits, are organized into unions that could make things messy if they were to suddenly strike or take some other form of mass action, especially if they unite with private sector workers.

To prevent this from happening, public sector workers are being set up as straw men. They are portrayed as overpaid, greedy brats who are responsible for the deficits and everyone else’s stagnating standard of living. Both Republican and Democratic politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. Below are just a few examples:

Why the Increasing Attacks On Public Sector Workers?
Republicans are claiming that unions have become too powerful and must be reigned in, which is simply not true. Labor has grown significantly weaker over the past fifty years, with union membership in steady decline since the 1950s, when over 30% of American workers were unionized. Today only 12% are unionized, the majority in the public sector. Furthermore, they begin with the asinine assumption that unions lower wages, job availability and living standards. If this were true, unions would wither away on their own, without help from the bosses. To see the absurdity of this assumption, one need only compare average wages in heavily unionized states with those in “right to work” states.

Likewise, the claim that public sector workers have it too good, that their benefits are too generous and a rip-off to the poor taxpayers, is just a diversion to distract us from the real causes of the economic meltdown and growing deficit: corporate greed, protracted wars, Wall Street bailouts, extended tax cuts for the wealthy, and nominal corporate taxes.

Some have argued that the crackdown on unions is punishment for the millions of dollars unions spent to defeat Republican candidates. If so, then why are Democrats like Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo, who owe their electoral victories to the vast amounts of money spent by unions on their behalf, also attacking unions?

Silly Assumptions Yield Absurd Conclusions
The left also base their arguments on some silly assumptions, like the idea that everyone should have the right to organize or strike or that we can vote into office representatives who will protect our interests. These assumptions ignore the fact that the state exists to serve the interests of capital, not labor. Voting simply gives workers the opportunity to choose who will exercise state power over them. Some politicians try to portray themselves as the more benign and beneficent of the choices. Hence, Jerry Brown, with a violent anti-labor background (as Oakland Mayor, he called in the cops to brutally suppress an ILWU protest) was transformed into an acceptable “pro-labor” choice for governor (compared to the vitriolic and unabashedly anti-labor candidate, Meg Whitman). Labor chose Brown and the union bureaucrats will bend over backwards to help Brown impose austerity on their members.

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The ruling class depends on our labor and our cooperation to keep their businesses profitable. The state assists them in this by ensuring that things run smoothly and with minimal disruption, sometimes with laws that seem counter to their interests (e.g., child labor, minimum wage, and overtime laws). If we as workers place our trust in the state to protect us with such measures, then we will continue to accept the lesser evil each election cycle, which means we will continue to vote for our class enemies, rulers who will always place the interests of our bosses over our own. Hence, teachers who supported Obama were rewarded with Race To The Top. And their support for Jerry Brown will be rewarded with multi-billion dollars cuts to the education budget in California and subsequent lay-offs, furloughs and pay and benefits cuts, facilitated by the pinstriped bosses of the NEA and AFT.

Likewise, it is not in the interests of the ruling elite to have unions or strikes and, for much of U.S. history, they made sure that unions did not have the right to strike or to collectively bargain. It should be pointed out that strikes still occurred. In fact, these rights were granted in 1934, with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), in response to protracted militant (and illegal) strikes, including several general strikes that effectively shut down the cities of San Francisco and Minneapolis. The right to strike was granted (along with strict rules governing how and when strikes could be conducted) as a means to control workers and minimize labor unrest so as to minimize the impact on business. This right was not a god-given inalienable right, nor was it one that workers won through the vote. It was a stopgap measure imposed by the state, on behalf of the ruling elite, so as to keep the economy running smoothly, a bone that was thrown to labor to get them to quiet down and behave. What the state giveth, the state can taketh away, as so many states are now trying to do. And what workers lose legislatively can be won back by misbehaving (i.e., illegal strikes and job actions).

The Impending Demise of Unions
Of course, the real reason for the growing attacks on public employee unions is that the ruling elite want no restraints whatsoever to their ability to make profits. Their greed and misbehavior created the biggest economic crisis in generations and they were punished with a multi-trillion dollar gift from the federal government. As a result, they have grown cockier than ever. There has been no New Deal. No significant new regulations or limits to their business practices. They want it all, they want it now, and they have no reason believe they won’t get it.

To this end, they would love nothing more than to destroy all vestiges of organized labor and they see public workers as the biggest impediment to this goal. When the wages and benefits of public sector workers are lowered, those of private sector workers follow suit. When one group of workers loses union protections, it weakens all workers by limiting their ability to take job actions in solidarity with each other.

Meanwhile, how are the few remaining unions dealing with the escalating class war? Most have relinquished their most important role of organizing, educating and mobilizing workers, so they can play the election game:
  1. Choose the lesser evil
  2. Sell him or her to their members
  3. Accept the impending job, wage and benefits cuts
  4. And then try to spin it as a victory by claiming that the alternative would have been much worse

The consequences of this game are that wages, benefits and living standards continue to decline for the vast majority of us, while the wealthy continue to grow wealthier. Concessions given by workers are almost never given back, not without a fight. So why give the concessions in the first place, especially without a fight? 

Unless unions start to acknowledge that bosses and workers have nothing in common, that politicians are not our allies, and start to prioritize organizing and mobilizing their members, they will facilitate their own demise.

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