A Time To Fight
In today’s hard economic times, it’s become commonplace for people to talk of belt-tightening and fiscal discipline. Commentators rage on the airwaves about our collective loss of thrift, economists chide governments for excessive spending, and politicians praise the benefits of austerity. Meanwhile, the pundits go home to palatial apartments, the scholars luxuriate in their lavish offices, and the officials enjoy their taxpayer-subsidized perks. Their hypocrisy, however, doesn’t stop them from demanding sacrifices from other Americans, particularly those not among the wealthy and well-connected. Indeed, their targets have been the middleclass and the working-class, the laborers and the union members, who they have depicted as leeches and have perversely portrayed as privileged. Here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has joined the chorus of the callous. He has called for cuts in Medicaid, a one-year wage freeze on the salaries of state workers, and a renegotiation of benefits and pensions for civil servants. All the while, he refuses to consider an extension of a surcharge on the incomes of the wealthiest and shoots down tax hikes for Wall Street. The Governor is content to balance the budget on the backs of the vulnerable and the voiceless; he’s proud to take on the “special interests,” which he sees as the unions that represent the policemen, firefighters, teachers, and railroad workers that keep this state running. Cuomo brandishes his beliefs as a badge of courage when people of his ilk should be branded with a scarlet letter. His actions aren’t brave; they’re just mean.
Contrary to popular perception and the lies of corporate-owned media, unionized workers are not rich and are not on the taxpayers’ dole. Rather, they have accepted lower salaries to stay in the public sector in exchange for a dignified retirement, flexible hours, and good health-care coverage. For years before they leave their jobs, they dutifully pay into the state pension system. Nevertheless, they can’t account for what New York does with that money, whether it spends it to cover general operating costs or invests it in the most imprudent way possible.
Cuomo and his conservative cohorts accuse civil servants of profiting from a generous system that doesn’t exist in private enterprise. They are right. Most major corporations don’t offer their employees quality, affordable health-care, and the majority have replaced pensions with 401(k)s, but their workers still receive much higher direct compensation. Nevertheless, these private retirement accounts are a new development and an unfortunate consequence of an increasingly emboldened plutocracy that cares less and less about the people it exploits and a government that refuses to regulate the economic royalists of our time.
In the 1950s and 60s, at the height of welfare capitalism and in the heyday of the middle class, captains of industry truly believed that they owed something to the Americans who made the economy tick: employees from the board room to the mail room, everyone from the cleaning lady to the business lady, both the managers and the managed. And they acted on this conviction, providing for and treating their workers with respect. However, along the way something changed. Corporate citizenship gave way to corporate greed, social conscience yielded to Social Darwinism, and Washington replaced trust-busting with union-busting.
Naturally, benefits evaporated and pensions were snatched away, fading into faint memories. Only in the public sector, where the unions clung to life, did vestiges of the old days remain. Miraculously, they have persisted for 30 years after the rise of Ronald Reagan and the soft form of fascism that he embodied. In 2011, the organizations that won these rights face a mortal threat in a society so brainwashed by the democracydestroying dollars of high finance that a party, which once campaigned for social justice, sends a leader to Albany who is complicit in economic injustice.
In the face of adversity, labor has to stand tall and press its case in the court of public opinion. Unions built this nation, won for the Western world’s workers a square deal, and have stood in the vanguard of the fight for freedom across the globe. The labor movement plays an indispensable role in civil society and its destruction would pose a danger to the long-term survival of the Republic. There are fundamentally two kinds of liberty: political self-determination and economic freedom. The government is the guarantor of the former, though it has failed to secure for most citizens the latter. That is the responsibility of civil society, to keep our leaders honest and provide a check on corporate power: to ensure that, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “equal opportunity in the polling place” is matched by “equal opportunity in the marketplace.”
The fight over union benefits in this state isn’t an isolated event. It’s the opening salvo of another business-led government assault on working families, the middle class, and our very democracy. The battle lines are drawn and one can only hope that labor summons the strength to defend itself, to declare that shared sacrifice is not self-immolation, and to defeat the swarming hordes of hypocrites.