Sundown on the Unions?

by Gary Phillips

From the Mid-East to Madison has been the cry. Some 100,000 people—reportedly the largest since antiwar rallies there during Vietnam—including homegrown public sector workers, other union members including those from Los Angeles sent by the County Federation of Labor, and allies descended again on the capitol in Madison this past Saturday. They came to continue their protests of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to up the amount public union members have to pay into their retirements and health programs—which they’ve agreed to—and to essentially gut, exempting police and firefighters, their collective bargaining rights. Walker claims all this is meant to help close a looming $137 million budget gap. There’s been back and forth among the national punditry as to whether this deficit is an actuality. But what is clear is Republican Walker is following the GOP playbook in further hamstringing and downsizing unions in the public and private sectors—unions that historically have tended to back the Dems.

Though certainly any number of unions in what are called the building trades, having a history of locking out minorities from skilled labor apprenticeships, dock workers, police and fire locals have backed Republican candidates. It is worth noting that in Wisconsin, neither the Wisconsin Professional Police Association or the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin backed Walker and instead supported his Democratic opponent. These two public safety unions understand once Walker is successful in stripping collective bargaining from the other public employee unions, their positions are weakened as well. No wonder the firefighters have been marching with the protestors and the police, despite orders to clear protestors out after 4 pm on Saturday, didn’t get heavy-handed and let any number of them camp out in the capitol building overnight as they’d done before.

L.A. city workers
Here and below: L.A. city workers crowd city council chambers for recent
vote to lease out nine city garages.  All photos by Slobodan Dimitrov.

It hasn’t quite come to that in California but state public unions and their counterparts in the big Dem cities of L.A. and San Francisco have been getting hit hard for a number of years. Our former Governator, moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, attempted in more than one battle over the budget with his legislature to pay federal minimum wage to 200,000 state workers (Service Employees International Union Local 1000 reps about 95,000 of those state workers) until he could get his budget passed. John Chiang, the elected state controller, a Dem, refused to comply. In November ’05, the Schwarzenegger backed four ballot measures, including Proposition 73, which would have restricted political spending by public sector employee unions and Proposition 74, which would have increased the timeline for teachers to achieve tenure. The measures failed in no small part to the unions mounting a counterattack.

But it’s not as if recently elected Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, his second time around, is stepping in clover. He rope-a-doped his Republican opponent, eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who, to extend the metaphor, punched herself out like Foreman did in Zaire. She spent six times as much as Brown did on the governor’s race; $160 million—$141 million of that her own—to Brown's $24.8 million. This meant she spent nearly $50 for each of the three million some odd votes she won.

One difference in their campaigns was the ground game. Public and private unions not only backed Brown verbally, but as the saying now goes, put boots on the ground to do door-knocking and ran phone banks for him. Brown, unlike Walker, is not looking to balance his budget on the backs of union members—not solely and as directly at least. He is proposing a budget composed roughly of half cuts and half taxes to confront a budget shortfall his office has estimated at $25.4 billion. Brown has said, "[It] will be painful, requiring sacrifice from every sector of the state, but we have no choice."

L.A. city workers

Before the state legislature are his proposals to cut $1.5 billion from welfare, $1.7 billion from Medi-Cal, $500 million each from the UC and CSU systems, $750 million from services for the developmentally disabled, and more. State workers not under a collective bargaining agreement would face a 10% pay cut. Brown would also like to hold a special election in June to extend close to $9 billion in fees and taxes he has estimated.

In Los Angeles, the city faces a deficit of $350 million for the coming fiscal year of 2011-2012, starting in June. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been listening to his Chief Accounting Officer, Miguel Santana, and city workers have been hit with rolling furloughs, layoffs, concessions and the need to constantly mobilize members to crowd City Council chambers to testify as they did recently on the vote to privatize nine city-owned parking garages in an effort to raise revenue and avoid further furloughs. Full disclosure: I write for a communication outfit that does work for one of the public sector locals. Once the union-backed darling, Villaraigosa has stated there’s “dead wood” among the union ranks and eliminating them would allow younger, more productive workers to get the job done.

“Public servants are convenient scapegoats,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote on his blog this past January. “They don’t want stories,” he continued, “about Wall Street bonuses, now higher than before taxpayers bailed out the Street.” It pits worker against worker. You look at your circumstances and say, well, hell, I don’t have a pension or health benefits, so why should they? Yet as presidents Kennedy and Reagan have said, “A rising tide raises all boats.” Strong public sector unions undergird the conditions to bolster their fellows in the private sector. The old cliché of an attack on one is an attack on all has merit as lines have to be drawn, stands must be taken.

L.A. city workers

To be sure there’s been plenty of featherbedding by some in the public sector. Just look at the still unfolding story about what went on in the City of Bell by the former city administrator Robert Rizzo and his cronies. Yet for every “Greed is Good” Rizzoesque story, there are many stories of teachers who stay after school for no pay to help their students, pay out of pocket for supplies, or like firefighter Glenn Allen who with others went into a house where he was killed when the roof collapsed, city workers forced to work outside of their job categories because now you have less workers in your department (in L.A., it turned out the old heads weren’t just taking up space but had useful knowledge of making the bureaucracy work), or that many public workers may be paying into a pension, but have traded off not receiving Social Security—pensions that might be as low as $19,000 a year. Upcoming in the March 8 city election is Charter Amendment G, which would restructure police and fire pensions. Pensions are a sizeable portion of commitments from the general fund. Brown is right, sacrifices have to be made, but those sacrifices should be across the board.

The real deal in Madison and L.A. and elsewhere is, as Reich stated in his piece, combating the Big Lie. Too long have unions been insular and, regretfully, too often mired in their own internecine politics. Having participated in community-union coalitions, I watched them wither away soon as the union achieved its organizing campaign goals. But union members are community residents too and their fortunes are tied to that of their friends and neighbors. The lessons from then is unions and community should come together for their mutual benefit. Unions can’t just use community leaders as mouthpieces and flak-catchers. The unions need to invest resources, as some have, in training programs and the like, while also needing to better tell their stories to a public who have a jaundiced view of them.

Just maybe unions won’t become as irrelevant as various quarters predict. Defensively lying on the rope won’t do, they’re going to need a good offense.

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.


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