Republican public union-busting efforts are counterproductive

| Friday, February 25, 2011
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It's clear now that the Republican revolution, which picked up steam with the party's shellacking of Democrats in the midterm elections, is about more than cutting spending and shrinking the size of government.

The larger goal, playing out in state capitals around the country, is to break the back of organized labor.

Ground zero is Madison, Wis., where the state assembly voted early this morning to strip the collective bargaining rights of most state employees. Democratic members of the state senate are hiding out in Illinois, trying to prevent a vote on the measure by the Republican-controlled chamber.

Republicans, who also control the state legislature in Michigan, have introduced legislation that would establish local "right-to-work zones" among nearly 40 labor-related bills pending in Lansing.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker inadvertently revealed his party's union-busting strategy during a prank telephone call. Walker, who thought he was talking to conservative billionaire David Koch, compared his stand in Madison to President Ronald Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers in 1981.

"This is our moment," Walker said in the tape-recorded conversation.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, to his credit, has said he's not interested in a war with unions and will seek concessions from state workers in the collective bargaining process.

The Republicans' attempt to destroy public-sector unions is part of a deeper strategy to cut off a crucial source of campaign cash to Democrats. Unions tend to financially support Democratic candidates. If Republicans can kill unions, they'll significantly weaken the Democratic Party, as well.

Public-sector unionism is where the action is. While just 6.9 percent of U.S. private-sector workers are represented by a labor union, 36.2 percent of public-sector workers belong to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some public employees are represented by private-sector unions, such as the United Auto Workers in Michigan.

But if Republicans want to achieve their goal of making this a right-to-work nation, they must defeat public-sector unionism.

My own view of unions is a conflicted one. On a personal level, I've benefited from union and nonunion environments. Decades ago, I paid for a big chunk of my college costs by working summers in a nonunion plant in northern Michigan that made specialty oil filters for the former AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors.

But I don't think it was a coincidence that the pay and benefits I received during much of my career as a nonunion reporter closely tracked the compensation packages of unionized workers in the cities where I worked.

Unions have done much to improve the lives of working folks, but industrial unions are being outgunned in the private sector by intense, low-wage, largely nonunion global competition. Some labor experts also say federal labor law is skewed to favor employers over unions.

Unions also have done a poor job of telling their story. In covering the relationship of the UAW with Detroit's automakers for three decades I (and many other auto writers) were mostly treated with "no comment" from Solidarity House in Detroit when trying to get the UAW's view on an industry development.

The view of most labor leaders was that talking to the media was fruitless because whatever they said would be twisted by news organizations controlled by powerful corporations that didn't like unions.

(Kind of amusing in light of the view of conservatives that the mainstream media is part of the liberal propaganda machine.)

The wall of silence has cracked in recent years, but the damage to the image of unions over the decades may be irreversible.

On top of that, most of us don't see the need for unions anymore. We largely work in safe office environments (except for occasional shooting rampages by disgruntled colleagues) and we think we're better off individually negotiating our own compensation rather doing it collectively.

We may be deceiving ourselves. Wages have been stagnant for most workers for years, income inequality is growing--worse than Egypt!--and there is no counterbalance to prevent employers from shifting an ever greater share of the cost of health insurance to workers, which effectively reduces income.

Over the past several decades, a belief has grown that cutting taxes, shrinking government and eliminating unions will lead to a more globally competitive U.S. economy and higher living standards for workers. It's a false notion.

Certainly, public workers will have to take cuts in their compensation as a result of the fiscal crisis most states are facing. But this isn't all the fault of unions. It takes two sides to sign a contract. Many of the employee benefits that are bedeviling states were enacted years ago when they seemed affordable and reasonable.

And elected officials, as Snyder has noted, failed for years to tell citizens about the growing liabilities states were accumulating in promised benefits to employees and retirees or do much about it.

We're in a period of austerity now because of the excesses (and poor leadership) of the past. But as the auto companies have demonstrated, we can't just cut our way to prosperity.

We need to develop new ideas and policies that will boost our economy and raise incomes. Union busting is little more than an ugly political sideshow.

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