The New Frontiers
For the past year, union-busting has seemed a uniquely Midwestern monster. First, Scott Walker ramrodded a bill through Wisconsin’s state legislature that shredded the collective bargaining rights of most civil servants. In Ohio, John Kasich followed suit, stripping all public employees of their place at the table, including police officers and firefighters. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels attempted to pass similar legislation, but was thwarted by Democrats who fled the state, thus preventing a quorum in the Assembly.
If you look closely, however, you can discern that the anti-labor movement has begun to morph into a Northeastern beast. If you don’t believe me, look around. In New Jersey, Chris Christie unilaterally changed the health plans of government workers and tampered with the pensions of current and future retirees. Even in New York, with the country’s highest rate of unionization, we have leaders representing us on every level who have displayed an unprecedented animus toward organized labor and the working families for which it fights.
We can start with the usual suspects. Michael Bloomberg, our city’s self-styled post-partisan technocratic mayor, who never saw a picket line he didn’t cross, is an obvious one. His antagonistic relationship with the teachers’ union is legendary, but this summer he strained those ties even further, championing a proposed law in Albany that would have repealed the last-in-first-out rule, which ties hiring and firing at the Department of Education to seniority.
Then there’s Bob Turner, our newlyelected Congressman, who counts among his constituents thousands of PBA and UFA members. At his inauguration, he declared he would stick to the middle of the road. He hasn’t. A few minutes after being sworn in, he voted to de-fang the National Labor Relations Board by severely curtailing its authority to rein in unfair employment practices in the private sector.
These examples don’t necessarily bother me. After all, it’s Republicans – and fake independents such as Bloomberg – doing what they do best: attacking the rights of the middle class and working class under the false pretense of fiscal restraint. No, what sticks in my craw about some of our northeastern Democrats, what befuddles me and drives me mad, is how some of them link arms with their colleagues across the aisle to advance a war on working families, who spit on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, who trample on our party’s values, who appropriate the arguments and agendas of their conservative peers with the express goal of serving the same corporate masters, much unlike the brave progressives in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana who fought authoritarian governors with everything they had.
Stephen Sweeney and Sheila Oliver, the Democratic leaders of New Jersey’s state Senate and Assembly, who aided and abetted Christie’s assault on civil servants, are great examples of this. So is our own governor, Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, buoyed by corporate money, was elected last November against token opposition from a Tea Party candidate and made clear that he would be a ‘pro-business’ leader, and indeed, he has proved red-blooded as they come. His bare-knuckles tactics with unions – he has threatened to lay off almost 10,000 state employees unless workers ratify contracts with three-year pay freezes – make him the most anti-labor governor in a century and a man whom predecessors such as Al Smith, FDR and Nelson Rockefeller would find positively reactionary.
He calls for shared sacrifice, and I might be able to understand that position, except, while he slashes billions in school funding and Medicaid, he also pledges to veto an extension of the millionaire’s tax. Despite opposition from Occupy Wall Street protesters and a majority of New Yorkers, Cuomo has dug in his heels on this issue, calling his stance a matter of principle similar to the stand his father, Mario, took against the death penalty in the 1980s and 90s. His reasoning? The fallacious argument that the affluent flee high-tax states, which has been refuted time after time, despite anything that Arthur Laffer claims. (And for the record, Andrew, you are no Mario. He decried the income inequality of the Reagan era and eloquently spoke for the rights of the poor.)
For all of it, though, Bloomberg, Cuomo, Christie, Daniels, Kasich, Oliver, Sweeney, Turner, Walker, and all the rest are just symptoms of a larger problem: the poisoning of our democracy by corporate money, resulting in crony capitalism and the decline of the middle class.
The question becomes, then, how do we turn back the tide on a forty-year attack waged against the American people by Wall Street and its puppets in D.C., how do we restore to the United States a wider freedom, from the political liberties for which Washington and Jefferson battled the British to the economic rights for which Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson fought Congress.
There are two ways that I believe work. One involves people power, which is needed to overcome our national inertia. Indeed, the left-wing militancy of the 1930s was really what forced FDR to make such a radical break with the past and enact the New Deal. The beginnings of such a movement are visible in Liberty Plaza today and also in the streets of Madison, a city that has been convulsed by backlash to Scott Walker’s overreach.
People power’s potency lays in its potential at the ballot box. Just this Tuesday, Ohio voters overturned their state’s anti-union law, coming on the heels of recall elections this summer that led to the ouster of two Republican state senators who backed a similar measure in Wisconsin.
And that brings us back to the other weapon we have in our struggle to recapture the American Dream: unions – which are hated by plutocrat-purchased politicians for this exact reason. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of the middle class and the heyday of the unions occurred simultaneously and that the decline of organized labor paralleled the worsening plight of average citizens. Beyond deindustrialization, what has hit unions hard are restrictions on collective power and their ability to show solidarity with one another. The Taft-Hartley Act bans unions from promoting sympathy strikes or secondary action. Measures like New York’s Taylor Law prohibit state employees from walking off the job. More than 20 states are right-to-work, crimping organizing efforts. Knock down those roadblocks and membership will revive and so too will the shared prosperity of the 1950s and the 1960s.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of corrupt labor bosses or that adjustments don’t have to be made in the way civil servants are compensated. However, unions are the only entities capable of squaring off with Big Money and that union ideal, that concept of workers banding together to lobby for fairness at the workplace and justice in wider society, remains compelling. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org