OpEdge Redux: The speech I gave connected the attack on public unions to 30 years of taking from everyone to give to wealthy

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on April 15, 2011.

I gave the following remarks yesterday evening at the monthly meeting of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC). My topic was “putting the Attaack on Public Unions in Perspective.”  I spoke after Sam Williamson, Associate Manager of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, SEIU, spoke on the significance of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

In this speech I pull together a number of ideas that have populated by blog over the past 18 months, so I thought I would publish it on the blog for my readers. It’s pretty long, so I’ll split it up over two days:

Over the next 15 minutes, I’m going to put the current attempt in many states to reduce pensions and curtail the collective bargaining rights of unionized public employees into two broad contexts: one—the 30-year war against labor unions and, two—the role that war has played in the broader movement of income and wealth up the ladder from the middle class and the poor to the wealthy, also a phenomenon of the last 30 years. 

My interest in these matters began when I was a television news reporter working for the national news program, “Business Today” and covered the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981.  During that time I was the first mass media journalist to report about the impact of the graying of the baby boom generation on the economy and society, and also the first to report on our development into a nation of rich and poor.  Today, among other things, I write the blog, OpEdge, which has investigated and analyzed the right-wing war against unions as one of its continuing themes. 

Let’s get started, because we’re talking about class warfare, which as Betty Davis might have said, is always a bumpy ride.

The attempt of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators to end important collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin is the tip of the iceberg of what is an all-out assault on public workers occurring before our very eyes.  Here are some other examples that have not received as much ink nationally:

  • In Indiana, Democrats legislators also walked off the job to slow down Republican efforts to ram through laws that weaken Indiana’s prevailing wage and collective bargaining laws.
  • In Florida, there are three bills moving through the legislature that weaken the teacher’s union, restrict political activity by public unions and reduce benefits to state workers.
  • Republicans in Iowa, New Jersey, Maine and Ohio are all trying to restrict collective bargaining rights of state employees
  • Meanwhile, the governor of Ohio wants to exempt universities from a requirement that they pay union-level wages on construction projects.
  • Even Democrats are getting into the “attack the unions” game. Connecticut’s new Democratic Governor is demanding $2 billion in public union concessions over two years.
  • Let’s cap this review of anti-union activity across the country with a little Alice in Wonderland thinking that many have been doing, including the New York Times this past January. It seems as if certain policy makers are considering ways to enable states to enter bankruptcy in a new and as yet illegal way that would allow the states to keep paying municipal bond holders while breaking all union contracts.

If you think all this activity against public unions sprang up overnight as a collective expression of the anger or frustration of a country riddled with economic problems, then you haven’t been paying attention.  Right-wingers, primarily from the Republican Party, have been aggressively trying to curtail unionism and union political activity since the ascension to the presidency of the patron saint of union-busting, Ronald Reagan:

  • Symbolically, the 30-year war against unions began when President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers—85% of all air traffic controllers—because they did not return to work as ordered during a strike in August of 1981. Reagan also banned the fired employees from all future federal work, a move that the Clinton Administration rescinded in 1993.
  • Reagan packed the National Labor Relations Board with management representatives. Prior NLRB boards settled only one third of all cases in favor of employers, even under Nixon. Reagan’s NLRB settled three-quarters of all complaints in favor of employers.  The NLRB under Reagan also took more time to settle union complaints, which made it harder to organize and easier for management to pursue decertification campaigns.
  • Both Reagan and Bush II’s Labor Departments were anti-union. Reagan’s Labor Department, for example, declined to ask union-busting consultants and the companies that hired them for the financial disclosure statements the law demands, but it did ask unions to provide this documentation. Though the Labor Department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for investigating union finances by almost 40 percent. 
  • Under Bush II, the budget was again eviscerated, with funding stripped from every enforcement operation: workplace health and safety, minimum wage, fair hours, and even child labor. But no surprise, funding for investigations of labor unions increased.
  • Now we come to that odd confection called charter schools. Although many well-intentioned people now support charter schools, make no bones about it—the inception of the charter school movement and the continued advocacy by the right-wing has from the start derived from anti-union motives. For the most part, charter schools replace unionized teachers with non-unionized ones, who, of course, make less money, a necessity if the charter school is going to make a profit for its organizers.  The list of long-time financial supporters of the charter school movement reads like a who’s who of union haters, including the Walton family and the Koch brothers.  And supporting charter schools is part of the anti-union panoply of policy recommendations by such anti-union think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, the Pacific Research Foundation and the Goldwater Institute. By the way, virtually all studies of the matter show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance both in school and on standardized tests.

The war on unions is just part of a larger trend over the last 30 years to transfer both income and wealth up the economic ladder.  This period has seen incomes and overall wealth of the middle class and poor stagnate while those for the upper 5% and 1% grow steadily.

Before I lay out some of the key events in this transfer of income and wealth up the economic ladder, let me first convince you that it has occurred.  Most of my facts were supplied by Professor William Domhoff, author of Who Rules America Now and The Powers that Be:

  • The top 1% now owns 34% of all the wealth in the United States, compared to only 20.5% in 1979, for a gain of almost 70% in the past 30 years!
  • Income of the top 1% was only about 13% of total income in 1982 and today  it’s about 21.5%—a gain of two-thirds!
  • The chief executive officers and presidents of companies now make many more times the money than their average full-time worker does.  In 1980, CEOs made about 42 times what the average worked was paid; CEOs now make 475 times the income of the average worker in the United States.  By the way, in Europe and Japan, it’s anywhere from only eleven times as much to 22 times as much
  • The top 1% of S. households owns nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
  • And only the top 5 percent of S. households have earned additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

I think it’s reasonable to say that all ideology and philosophy aside, the past 30 years have seen the rich taking more of the pie and leaving less for everyone else. 

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