For decades the two political parties have engaged in parallel social contracts with workers and management: Come election time, unions support Democrats and the people who unions work for support Republicans. Legislatively, the two parties advocate the agendas of their respective constituencies. Since the 1980s, the Republican-management axis has been in the ascendancy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the percentage of American wage and salary workers belonging to unions was 11.9%. In 1983, that number was 20.1%. The actual steepness in the decline of union membership is masked by the rise in public sector unions. In 2010, 36% of all public sector employees were members of unions while only 7% of employees in the private sector were. In fact, there are more government employees (7.6 million) in unions than there are private sector workers (7.1 million).
The Republican-management coalition has turned its full attention to doing the same to public sector unions as it’s done to those in the private sector. The Lexington & Concord of this campaign is Madison, Wisconsin where newly elected Governor Scott Walker, backed by Republican super majorities in both houses of the legislature are about to enact legislation that will essentially end the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Governor Walker proclaims that the issue is not unions, but balancing the state’s budget, but that’s a sham. Why else would he exempt public safety unions (which all endorsed him in the recent election) from these cuts? And what does requiring all other public unions to hold an annual vote of members as to the union’s continued existence, as the governor proposes, have to do with budget problems?
If state and local workers in Wisconsin are paying little towards their pensions and health insurance, that should change. Government employees should pay a reasonable amount for reasonable benefits, but the constant refrain that “it’s not like this in the private sector” is not the yardstick that we want to use. The rights and benefits of workers in the private sector have been devastated by management as part of the ongoing transference of wealth from the middle class to the most affluent in our society.
In the late 1970s, the richest 1% of Americans took in 9% of the nation’s total income; in 2007, that same 1% took in 23.5% of total income. That increase wasn’t the result of “new” money – it came from somebody else and that somebody else was the American middle class whose wages have been stagnant for a decade and whose benefits, in the form of decent health insurance and pensions, have been stripped away, all in the cause of greater wealth for the few. If private sector employees were treated more like public sector employees, our country and our economy would be a lot better off.
In some ways, however, public sector employees have become victims of their own success. Many are among the most reliable of Republican voters, embracing the “less taxes/smaller government” mantra, seemingly oblivious to the fact that those taxes pay the salaries and benefits they receive. If you doubt that, go back to the archives and find any story written in the past two years about a Tea Party rally – such stories inevitably include at least one interview with an enthusiastic Tea Partier who happens to be a present or former (and now collecting a pension) government employee.
As for the eventual outcome of this struggle that’s been touched off in Madison, I hope the unions win and I hope that victory will be the start of a counter-revolution in this decades-long attack on the American middle class. But unless public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere recalibrate their position and think of the big picture when concessions are needed to balance budgets, that’s not going to happen.