In an article titled “War on Public Workers” in this week’s Nation, Amy Traub connects a lot of recent blips on the news media screen to draw a picture of what she accurately calls a new class war against government employees.
Traub does an excellent job of citing some of the usual suspects such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, the editor of U.S. News & World Report, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot, the Heritage Foundation and Reason Magazine and their calls for cutting the salaries and pensions of state workers or loosening the stranglehold that public unions supposedly have on state and local governments.
Traub demonstrates that, as she says, “the lavish lifestyle of public workers is a myth,” but notes that by “attacking public workers, they can demonize ‘big labor’ and ‘big government’ at the same time, while deflecting attention from the more logical target of Middle America’s rage: the irresponsible Wall Street traders, whose risky, high-profit business practices brought down the economy, and the lax regulators who let them get away with it.”
We all get angry when we hear executives get hundreds of millions, destroy the company and the employees end up with partial or no pensions. In the case of public employees, the people getting rich, or richer, because of underfunding pension needs are those who have paid less in taxes over the years. Now that’s all of us, but remember that tax cuts everywhere during the last 30 years have primarily helped the wealthy.
Several days after Traub’s article appeared, Roger Lowenstein made the “let’s go after the public unions” argument in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. His topic is the pension funding shortfall faced by an alarming number of states and municipalities. He admits that shortfall is the fault of the employers—in this case, government—for overestimating how much money the pension fund investments would make and underestimating how much they would have to put into the funds every year to keep them solvent. Yet Lowenstein wants the workers to pay the price of the employers’ folly. For example, he says: “…legislatures need to push the boundaries of reform. That will mean challenging the unions and their political might.”
And now the front page of this morning’s Times holds a story by Steven Greenberg about four elected Democrats, two in New Jersey and one each in California and New York, who are trying or talking about trying to reduce the pensions, benefits or salaries of public unions. The story is pretty much an encomium to the personal courage these politicians are supposedly showing. The article quotes Gary N. Chaison, a professor at Clark University, saying that some Democrats now consider it a “badge of honor” to fight the unions.
But quoting Chaison is an example of expert selection to prove a point. Chaison’s thin body of academic work focuses on what happens when unions merge, yet, as his Wikipedia article points out, he is frequently quoted in the news media because he always says something pessimistic about the future of unions. In other words, he says what the writers and editors want readers and viewers to know.
I wanted to put Traub’s discussion of the class war of wealthy right-wing interests against public workers into the 30-year war that the right wing has waged against unions in general, starting as so many of these Conservative movements have done, with Ronald Reagan. Although once president of a union, as a politician and elected official, Reagan did all he could to make it more difficult for unions to organize and to shrink the power of unions in politics and the economy.
Here are some high points in the 30-year history of anti-unionism by the Republican Party, certain businesses and the right wing chatter-pros at think tanks, academic journals, business associations and the wing-nut media:
- Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controller’s union.
- Reagan’s reshaping of the National Labor Relations Board and other regulatory agencies, which then began to make decisions and promulgate new regulations that made it harder for unions to organize.
- The charter school movement, which while declaring itself a movement to return control to parents really has had the breaking of teachers’ unions as its primary goal from the very beginning.
- The news media’s war on baseball since free agency and the ascension of the strong players’ union. Notice how year in and year out, football (with its very weak union) can do no wrong, whereas everything even a little negative about baseball gets blown out of proportion. For example, the media has never made a fuss about the ubiquitous presence of steroids and other performance enhancers in football, while crucifying baseball in general and every baseball player ever discovered to have taken performance enhancing drugs.
- The decision of the Obama Administration, unlike the Clinton Administration after 12 years of Republican rule, not to roll back 8 years of Bush II’s phase of the war on unions. His Secretary of State, for example, embraces charter schools.
The war on public workers so vividly described by Traub, is the latest chapter in the wider war on the union movement.
The question, of course, is why the right-wing is so obsessed with crushing unions? The ideological pureness of unregulated free market thinking aside, I think its part of the bigger 30-year class war declared by Reagan and his followers against anyone who isn’t wealthy. One thing that virtually every item on Reagan’s domestic agenda had in common was that they all tended to transfer wealth up the economic ladder from poor and middle class to the wealthy. Think of it—lower taxes, smaller government, more government services performed by private contractors, fewer unionized workers. Whatever other impact each may have had, they all took and still take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy.