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The national budget crisis exposes an anti-labor sentiment that reflects America's staunchly conservative underbelly.
Wisconsin's Republican governor Scott Walker proposes legislation that would strip most of the state's employee unions of their bargaining rights and inevitably lead to unilateral reductions in their pensions and benefits. Aggressive tax-cutting rather than the local economy created Wisconsin's financial shortfall but Walker's union-bashing agenda resonates with other Republican administrations where similar bills are being introduced.
A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that public regard for organized labor generally is at a historic low and discontent with public sector pensions and benefits is rising-developments that will likely require public sector union compromises. The Pew Survey concludes, "The results correlates to a stunning plunge in Americans' attitudes toward unions in the last three years as the economy plummeted into recession." (Unions are conservative's scapegoats for the states' financial woes.) Politically, the attempt to reduce public employee pensions and benefits while stripping them of their right to collective bargaining is becoming a national struggle over the future of organized labor itself.
Contrary to Governor Walker and his cohorts' claim, states' budgets are less the issue than their attempt to bust the unions. Ultimately, Democratic state senators fleeing the state, massive union demonstrations throughout the country and the resolve of Republicans to weaken unions, will have a profound effect on labor relations policies throughout the nation.
Attempts to reduce the power of unions are not new. Gary Flowers, CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, reminds us that "The history of union-busting fills the annals of American elitism." He points out that all Americans enjoy greater employment and unemployment privileges because of the sweat and blood of unionists. Flowers quips, "Let the record reflect that it was the private profiteers on Wall Street-not unions-who bankrupted the national treasury without a single Wall Streeter going to jail."
The "generous" union deals were not ordained by divine providence, they were negotiated; state and local officials agreed to the contract provisions now considered excessive and Republicans are said to believe that a contract is a contract-sacred and inviolate. Is that right?
The reality is that workers in many industries must choose between give-backs and massive layoffs. Recognizing this, Wisconsin's union leaders are prepared to accept Walker's proposal on health and pension contributions-so money is no longer an issue. But bringing health and pension benefits in line with current reality was never the point. Walker and Republicans' insistence on denying collective bargaining is the real issue. The GOP's focus is not on the practical impact of the measure-the unions have acquiesced to the financial terms. The issue is controlling the political impact of the budget remedy.
Union membership has declined sharply over the past few decades and by virtually all accounts, is just over 10% of the U.S. workforce. It is approximately 6% in the private sector, 36% in the public sector and 42% of state and local government workers. Republicans want to weaken the Democratic Party by destroying the most important source of its big money support and therefore, are trying to destroy public sector unions at the state and local level. That's what the Wisconsin fight is all about-and why Governor Walker won't settle for budget-balancing concessions. Eliminating collective bargaining rights would make it considerably harder to collect union dues so Walker and his cohorts want to "starve the unions to death."
The Wisconsin battleground is both symptomatic and interrelated to broader issues; the assault on unions is not happening in isolation. Moreover, Wisconsin's attack on unions is an attack on basic civil rights as well. It is no coincidence that the expanding battleground complements the emergence of the Tea Party movement and other extreme conservative agendas, including House Speaker Boehner's blatant, unrelenting opposition to President Obama's domestic agenda.
Rev. Jesse Jackson's refers to Madison, Wisconsin as the epicenter of the modern battle for human rights. He recalls that in 1965, the drive for voting rights was stalled in the U.S. Senate and President Johnson urged Dr. Martin Luther King to stop demonstrations. Instead, Dr. King went to Selma, "... where on Bloody Sunday, peaceful demonstrations were met with dogs, clubs and horses that touched the nation's conscience." The Voting Rights Act passed five months later.
The increasingly conservative political climate, emergence of the Tea Party crowd and new Republican muscle in Congress, coupled with generally putrid pushback from Democrats and the American public, auger ill for Blacks and others seeking fundamental change. Actually, the broadening assault on labor unions mirrors a domestic manifest destiny mentality hell bent on perpetuating the racist status quo.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail