Solidarity on the right: America's 'one-sided class war' against unions

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Solidarity with US unions

We are one campaign

28 March 2011

As part of the TUC's support for the US trade union movement's campaign to defend collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, we are publishing information on the background to the campaign every day in the fortnight before our day of solidarity on Monday 4 April.

Today, John Logan, Director and Professor of Labor Studies, San Francisco State University, explains the politics that lies behind the current struggle.

In 1978, president of the United Auto Workers union, Scottish-born Douglas Fraser, accused corporate America, which had just mobilized to defeat reform the country's antiquated labor laws, of waging a 'one-sided class war' against working people.

That war has intensified over the past three decades. As a result of aggressive employer opposition and weak legal protection for labor rights, private sector union membership has declined with a drip-drip-drip since the 1970s. It now stands at the pitifully low level of 6.9% and shows no sign of rebounding anytime soon. But if private-sector unions risk going out with a whimper, a well-organized and coordinated attack on public sector unions at the state level now means that they may be on the verge of following with a bang. And that would spell disaster for the U.S. labor movement.

Public sector unions in the crosshairs

Public sector union membership has increased significantly since the enactment of state public sector bargaining laws starting with Wisconsin in 1959, and is currently at 36.2% of the workforce (down from 37.4% last year, when 150,000 state and local workers lost their jobs due to public sector cutbacks), even though over 20 states restrict or prohibit public sector bargaining. Union membership levels for public employees range from over 70% in New York and Rhode Island to under 10% in the Carolinas and Mississippi.

In the 2010 elections - which produced resounding victories for 'Tea Party' candidates - public unions were the largest contributors in money and troops to the Democratic Party. The nation's main public sector union, AFSCME (which traces its roots back to Madison, Wisconsin in 1932), spent $87.5 million dollars, SEIU (which represents workers in the public sector, healthcare and property services) spent $44 million, and the NEA, which represents public schoolteachers, spent $40. Make no mistake: this fight is primarily about political power, not about public sector finances. As a core constituency of the Democratic Party, public sector unions are firmly in the crosshairs of the rightwing.

'Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis'

Two years ago, US unions believed they were on the verge of a major breakthrough. They had played a key role in the election of Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, and the president supported labor's top legislative priority -- stronger organizing and bargaining rights. In the context of the worst recession since the 1930s, it appeared that meaningful reform might finally be within reach.

But that moment has passed - the president offered only lukewarm support for labor law reform - and unions have nothing to show for it. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, however, Republicans rarely waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.

Many observers have been shocked by the level of organization behind the attacks on unions at the state level after the 2010 elections. But the assault on public sector bargaining has been brewing for years - a cursory examination of the policy reports of anti-union think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and publications such as the National Review and Weekly Standard, provides ample evidence of that.

According to the Cato Institute, for example, 'State governments should ban collective bargaining in the public sector.... With many large fiscal challenges facing governments... policymakers need flexibility to make tough budget decisions.' After November 2010 there existed the perfect storm for the anti-union right to put their plan into action: Republicans gained control of both the executive and legislative branches in several key states, and the genuinely dire budget situation - caused by the financial crisis and resulting destruction of the tax base, not by over-generous public sector pay and benefits - has provided the justification for the all-out assault on public-sector bargaining. The assault began almost immediately after the new administrations took power at the state level in January 2011.

A well-coordinated assault on unions

The anti-union offensive at the state level is, from a political perspective, extremely impressive. Wisconsin's Scott Walker and other Republican Governors have no doubt which side they are on when it comes to labor issues, and like corporations in the economic sphere, they act upon it. Anti-union legislation at the state level has taken several forms.

First, bills, like those in Wisconsin and elsewhere, which strip public sector unions of much of their bargaining authority. In Wisconsin, for example, the legislation would remove from approximately 175,000 public sector employees (all but state troopers, police officers and firefighters) the right to negotiate over healthcare and pension benefits. Some would retain the right to negotiate over pay, but this would be capped to the consumer price index and Governor Walker has effectively told them: 'Sorry, there's no money left' (minus the sorry part).

Collective bargaining units would have to take annual votes to maintain their certification. Many other state workers - including home health workers and family childcare workers, and faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin -- would lose all collective bargaining rights. In Ohio, another key state for Obama in 2012, anti-labor legislation would limit the collective bargaining rights and eliminate the right to strike for almost 600,000 public sector workers, and weaken the financial and political capacity of their unions.

Second, several states have introduced 'right-to-work' bills that eliminate union security agreements, thereby making it much more difficult to maintain stable organizations. Prior to 2011, 22 states had these laws, most states with weak labor movements in the south and mountain west.

So far this year, fourteen states have introduced right-to-work bills, including union strongholds such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Alaska. Third, several states are considering 'pay-check protection' bills that provide that union membership fees cannot be used for political purposes unless individual members give the union permission to do so, which are intended to cripple the political effectiveness of unions. Finally, a number of states have introduced other anti-union measures such as bills outlawing or restricting 'project labor agreements' and 'prevailing wage laws' (both of which benefit union labor in the building trades and others).

The assault on unions in the states has also taken a few more bizarre forms: In South Carolina - which has 4.6% union density, one of the nation's lowest -- the newly elected Republican governor and rising star, Nikki Haley, said her labor agency will 'fight the unions,' and keep them from organizing at Boeing's assembly plant in the state. And in Maine, the newly elected Republican governor, Paul LePage, has ordered the removal of a mural depicting workers, including colonial-era shoemaking apprentices, from a state building because of the 'need to have a décor that represents neutrality.'

And the same anti-union dynamic is now playing out at the local level. In mid-March, after battling public sector unions over pay and benefits, the prosperous southern Californian town of Costa Mesa sent lay-off letters to almost half of its 450 employees, announcing its intention to outsource a number of services including firefighting.

After getting his lay-off notice, one 29 year-old worker jumped to his death from the roof of city hall.

Almost every week brings news of more anti-union legislation at the state and local levels.

Labor's dilemma: public sector unions without private sector unions?

All of this brings us back to where we started: the catastrophic decline of private sector unionism in the United States over the past three decades. Can you really continue to have vibrant public sector unions when private sector unions are in danger of dying out?

Last year was the first year in U.S. history when public sector union members outnumbered their private sector counterparts, and this is not a good trend for the labor movement.

When the economy is growing, and private sector union members are doing well, non-union members look to their unionized counterparts, who do better in wages and benefits, and think, 'I want some of what they have.' But when private sector unions are virtually irrelevant in much of the country and in many sectors of the economy, and private sector workers are taking major hits in health and pension benefits and in job security, many look to the public sector and think, 'Why should I pay for them to have good benefits and job security when I don't?' - especially when encouraged to do so by conservative politicians and media outlets.

Tim Pawlenty, the ex-governor of Minnesota and likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: '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.'

The battle over collective bargaining rights for public sector employees at the state level is far from lost. But in the long-term, American labor cannot win this battle unless it can also find a way to grow private sector union membership.

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