States and the unions

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

The heart of the fight in Wisconsin is the threat to public employees’ right to unions and collective bargaining. Newly elected GOP governor Scott Walker’s proposal to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees has generated a firestorm of protest. For now the governor is holding firm, saying the state can’t afford the benefits and retirement packages negotiated by the unions for its members.

Other newly elected GOP governors and state houses elsewhere, including Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana and Iowa, are considering similar measures.

The issue resonates particularly in Michigan where thousands of UAW and white collar automotive workers lost wages and benefits over the past few years as two of the former Big Three toppled into bankruptcy. Big Three retirees lost some of their health care and other benefits secured previously by labor contracts.

I’ve been a member of two rather ineffective unions in my career, and jokingly longed for the effectiveness of the Teamsters. My unions would rally the troops, pound on the tables, then settle for little more than what management offered before back-slapping and congratulating themselves on what a wonderful job they’d done.

Unions exist because they were needed at the time of the great labor movements in the early 20th Century. But some unions also grew fat, lazy and corrupt off the backs of their workers. Some spawned years of federal and state criminal investigations into their activities, and a number of union leaders spent much deserved time in prison because of it.

But unions also provided their members with decent wages, health care and pensions. Add the benefits of Social Security and Medicare into the package, and retirees could expect a worry-free lifestyle in their so-called golden years of life.

Happily, that ride into the sunset can last many years longer now due to better health care and longer life spans. But that also comes with a price, particularly in health care.

Public employees have largely escaped the worst of the recent recession. I know folks who have outright lost their jobs in the automotive industry but only a handful of public employees who have endured a few furlough days or cuts to generous retirement incentive packages. And their salaries and benefits, leaving out the automotive economies, were almost competitive with private sector workers. And in many instances, the retirement package was superior.

The gravy train has come to the end of the line. Many states are flat broke. With high unemployment, income tax revenues are down, and so are property taxes. Heck, Congress is even considering a law to allow them to file bankruptcy. That would allow court approved changes in benefits bargained for and gained over decades.

Is it fair? No. But there is no constitutional guarantee that life, taxes or death are fair either.

Likely state governors like Walker would be less likely to throw down this gauntlet if they felt the unions would be willing to acknowledge the problems and bargain realistically. That rarely happens, so the confrontation is inevitable.

In a USA Today/Gallup poll 61% would oppose a law in their own state like that has triggered the protests in Wisconsin and led Democratic lawmakers there to decamp to Illinois while 33% who would favor such a law.

Sadly, the poll also confirmed the disconnect of those interviewed with the realities of the budget crisis facing their state and the nation.

Key results of the poll include::

  • 71% oppose increasing sales, income or other taxes while 27% are in favor that approach.
  • 53% oppose reducing pay or benefits for government workers while 44% are in favor.
  • 48% opposed reducing or eliminating government programs while 47% were in favor of cuts.

At least these protests and discussions will be handled the American way–lots of sign waving, chanting and vociferous debate. Bet the people in Libya would view this as downright civilized. Of course, Governor Walker’s security detail has been beefed up, too.

6 replies »

  1. I’ve long had issues with corrupt unions (I got to see more of one particular telecom union that I wanted to several years ago when I was in the Comm group at US West during a bargaining/strike cycle) but I see no evidence that the unions under fire in Wisconsin fit that description.

    You’re also being awfully charitable to Walker, who has been exposed on this one pretty badly (and this post didn’t even address a tidbit that emerged in the past couple of days – that the emergency bill seems to sign over the state’s energy generation to the Koch Brothers.

  2. Let’s not forget the real catalyst for the recession that “the public employees have largely escaped”. The wealthy corporatists on wall street are the ones who have escaped unencumbered. They gambled with taxpayers’ money and when they lost, they were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. The pension funds that seem to be causing so much concern from Walker has lost millions because of the recklessness and utter disregard for consequences displayed by the finance industry.

    It amazes me how easily the wealthy financiers have deflected blame from the elite and privileged perpetrators, to the working class. Americans are sheep if they allow this sham to continue.

  3. The problem in WI was not caused by the unions it was caused by the Governor and the republicans by giving some $130 million in tax cuts and ‘packages’ to the corporations. And taking away collective bargaining from people who are mostly lower middle class and have been sacrificing for years to just do their jobs is un-American. The unions have given back $30 million but this is not enough Walker is a typical anti-humanist the corporation is god and the God of the corporation is the dollar. In an article earlier today someone said that the teachers were just greedy, lazy people that needed to be put in their place. Yet, teachers make around $37,000 a year, they teach the next generation how to read and write, add and subtract. It takes a lot of teachers to accomplish this goal. But, we pay Wall Street billions of dollars in ‘bonuses’ to run the economy into the ground then bail them out and call that capitalism.

    I have always said that corporations would put a bullet in an employees head if they could many them a $1.00 profit, and they have… the BP Deepwater Horizon, 11 killed, Massey Energy Company – Upper Big Branch Mine 31 miners killed. Both because profits were more important than safety. So people die big deal, that is how most corporations are willing to operate. And Walkers intent is to break ALL unions for his masters the Kocks. Just to line their pockets and his own.

  4. Previous respondent,Justice22, is right. All the state employee pension funds took serious hits because of the corrupt practices of Wall Street bankers. State employee pension funds constitute a large investment group for Wall Street and the state groups are in trouble because they lost so much value in the market debacle.State governments are in a bind because tax revenues have declined sharply from large reductions in the income of middle and lower economic groups (many of them public employees). Most of us in the public sector continued to work in it because of the security of pension and benefits. Most of us put up with a lot of abuse from corrupt politicians and unscrupulous private sector “contractors.” Now the oligarchs want to shift attention from Wall Street crooks to the cops, fireman, social workers, teachers,garbage collectors, highway repair workers, government office workers, etc. because they somehow have an “unfair” advantage. Give me a break!

  5. The bottom is falling out all around and Americans are too rotund and slow moving that we’ve siezed into a large plug in the draining tub of prosperity. Even if the teachers bargained and got excellent benefits and average pay, they still need to put on the show for image control. I say let the unions fall, set a decent fair market wage for public employees and let them handle health and retirement like everyone else needs to. Pay them, let them choose for themselves what “benefits” they choose.

  6. The bottom line is falling out because there has been decades of poor choices that should be classified as criminally stupid at best and just plain criminal at worst.

    I’ve only had the pleasure of being in one union, but i grew up in the UAW’s stronghold. There is no doubt that unions can and have been corrupted, but i’d ask for an example of any large, bureaucratic organization that is free from corruption. Are unions any more corrupted than our political parties? Our corporations? Our Chambers of Commerce?

    The trouble with private retirement investments is becoming obvious, they don’t cut it. The 401(k) generation is nearing retirement and most of them don’t have enough money to even come close to maintaining their current standard of living. More importantly, those funds are wholly subject to the whims of the market….here today, gone tomorrow.

    I guess what i find disturbing about this whole debate is the number of people who are all for racing to the lowest common denominator. Granted, it proves my long held thesis that we’re just monkeys with fancy thumbs: the complete lack of concern for our fellow beings betrays our proud talk about evolution. Show us a victim and we’re jubilant over beating him to death with sticks and/or skinning him alive.

    It’s the only thing that explains why so many people look at the implementation of neo-liberal austerity measures either gleefully or with a somber tone of necessity. But since this shit has only ever produced tragedy, further economic dislocation, starvation, brutality and death i can only surmise that a large number of my compatriots are either plain stupid or evil.

    All-in-all though, it’s ok. Watching the fall of a nation is far more interesting to me than being a part of its ascension. (And, no, i have no interest in saving it. A nation of pigs gets what it deserves…eventually.)