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Support Government Worker's Battle, or We Will All Suffer the Economic Consequences

The entire house of labor and all progressives must understand that we have not had a moment as threatening as this in our lifetime.

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Likewise, 1199/SEIU alienated progressives with its selfish dealmaking under former New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican. For example, when Blue Cross Blue Shield privatized, the healthcare workers union brazenly claimed the one-time windfall of money to pay for wage increases, in exchange for endorsing the man who was stepping on every other member of the traditional Democratic coalition.

The lukewarm support for unions generally and for government workers unions in particular in the progressive world is partly a legacy of such missteps by unions themselves. But in addition, there’s a more fundamental source of tension that is often ignored: most people who constitute the opinion-making class among liberals and progressives are upper middle class and mostly white. The progressives in academia and journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class that has little to no contact with unions. Even when there is an intellectual understanding of labor’s role in US history, there is often a lack of sympathy about the need for unions today. This is particularly true among liberal and progressive foundations, where support for unions is often a hot-button issue with boards of directors and top executives. Because these foundations represent the employer class for the social change movement, this has impeded the development of more effective strategies to counter the right-wing agenda.

Even among unions the fissures run deep. In New York, for example, where newly elected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has made slashing the state budget his single-minded mission, organized labor has not put up a united front against the cutbacks. The construction unions were especially eager to sell out the government workers unions for their own benefit. Ott explains how this works: “With the crashing economy, unemployment in the building trades in NYC is now somewhere in the 35 percent range, and some political entity comes along and says to the trades, ‘Hey, we will produce some jobs for your members on the capital side if you support us politically in this revenue fight.’”

This logic is not unusual for construction unions, which operate largely as craft unions—representing workers with a specific craft or skill, who have the ability to negotiate for themselves by withholding that skill. The construction unions have a long history of being an elitist labor force that has been used by politicians to split the union movement.

Rutgers’s Janice Fine says that overcoming divisions will take real work among unions. “When unionization rates and corresponding pay and benefits are so asymmetrical between the public and private sectors, unions have to take very deliberate steps to preserve solidarity,” she says, citing historical examples of public unions providing support to private sector unions by boycotting products, stores and companies, and supporting union products, banks and hotels. “This tradition is gone, and union members need to go back to consuming in a way that supports the unionized class. And private sector unions need to resist the short-term gain of undercutting public sector unions’ wages, benefits and pensions as it will only reinforce a race to the bottom that has no place for unions of any kind.”

The entire house of labor and all progressives must understand that we have not had a moment as threatening as this in our lifetime. The right is making the connections—attacking public employee unions and public services at the same time in order to wage complete war on the poor, people of color, and the working and middle classes of this country. Sadly, the left has not made the connections. To the extent that public sector unions, private sector unions and those fighting budget cuts allow themselves to be divided, they are playing into the right’s hands.

 
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