Misguided assault on unions

Misguided assault on unions

February 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

It has become undeniably clear that the political firestorms raging in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and other states where Republican governors are trying to break public employees' and teachers' unions have nothing to do with tight budgets, and everything to do with partisan political efforts to gut unions' rights to organize and collectively bargain, and to shred unions' traditional support for Democrats.

It's also clear that these Republican-controlled administrations and Legislatures are disturbingly untroubled about trampling the organizations that have done so much to advance decent standards for working conditions, wages, benefits and fair grievance procedures that have become the hallmark for America's mainstream, and now threatened, middle class.

Gov. Walker spills the beans

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's taped 20-minute conversation Wednesday with a man he presumed was billionaire David Koch, one of the two billionaire brothers who are the chief financiers of libertarian and neoconservative groups like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, provides telling insight into the nexus of the Republican union-busters and the ultra-rich architects of this destructive, anti-middle-class strategy.

Walker willingly took the call from a blogger who falsely identified himself as David Koch, a prominent figure who had helped bankroll Walker's campaign and who has long been a harsh opponent of unions. Asked by the caller how he was handling "those bas----s," Walker proceeded to lay out his political strategy and tactics for his union-busting initiative, which he labeled his party's most portentous "moment" in years to replicate Ronald Reagan's busting of the air traffic controllers' union.

Old grudge, bad tactics

With the caller openly disparaging teachers and other public employee union members, Walker said he had considered hiring provocateurs to make trouble in the massive but peaceful demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin's capital, against his union-busting bill. But he said he had decided not to do so, but only because he feared it could cause a political problem for him.

He coyly suggested that the Koch impersonator buy advertising to bolster wavering Republicans in the legislative stand-off that has resulted in Democratic members fleeing Wisconsin's capital to avert the quorum needed to pass the bill. He described how he might trick them to come back, and he laughed about keeping a ball-bat to handle the demonstrators. He said he couldn't introduce a key Democrat to the caller he believed to be Koch because "he isn't one of us." And he made it clear that he had wanted to bust public employee unions for a long time, and that he was keeping in touch with the governors in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Nevada about their common union-busting goals.

When the caller he presumed to be Koch closed the call by saying, "Well, I tell you what, Scott: Once you crush these bas----s I'll fly you to Cali (California) and really show you a good time," Walker replied, "All right, that would be outstanding. Thanks for all the support."

Ethical, legal issues

A former Wisconsin attorney and U.S. attorney, Peg Lautenschlager, told a Madison newspaper that Walker's comments raised possible ethical, election law and labor law violations. Whether that's the case, the governor's comments clearly reflect a reprehensible political position.

In fact, Wisconsin's state workers already have agreed to help the state close its budget shortfall by dramatically raising their cost-share for pensions and health care, among other concessions. But that doesn't matter to the governor. He still insists on passing the bill to strip the unions of broad organizational and collective bargaining rights because that's his primary goal.

Tennessee proposal worse

Tennessee's Republican leaders in the Legislature are set to pass an even harsher bill against the Tennessee Education Association, the teachers' union. They want to bar school boards from negotiating with the TEA and allowing its members paycheck deduction for dues. That would effectively destroy the core of teachers' professional rights to organize themselves under a union and have a say in the wages and working conditions that will circumscribe their careers and working lives.

This is wrong on its face because it amounts to stripping public employees of rights that are guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act to all American workers. It's another obscene example of lawmakers flouting the rules that apply to ordinary citizens and private businesses to take political vengeance on the teachers' union.

Unions pose no threat

In fact, unions are not a threat either to governments or private business. In Tennessee, for example, teachers are forbidden to strike. And relatively few Americans in private industries (less than 10 percent) now belong to unions. Their weakness is already the result of Republicans at the federal level placing burdensome anti-union rules on the exercise of workers' rights to organize and employers' obligations to recognize them.

Once public employees are stripped of their due process rights to collective bargaining, working conditions, wages, benefits and fair grievance procedures for workers on both sides of the public-private divide are bound to sink further, even as the share of national wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of America's top 1 percent of earners.

Worsening the wealth gap

This index is already the worst in America in decades. The top 1 percent presently hold more than 35 percent of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 90 percent hold just 25 percent. Busting unions, and threatening the standards they help set for non-union employees, will only aggravate the wealth gap that is already hollowing out America's middle class.

Why Republican leaders pursue this agenda is no mystery: The ultra rich are their main campaign contributors. But why they get away with it boggles the mind. Voters would serve themselves well to remind Republican leaders that their union-busting agenda will ultimately hurt America's middle class and lower-income workers more that our society can afford.