2012-03-16 / Columnists

The Progressive

Democracy In Peril
Commentary By John Paul Culotta

Every day, we are witness to the increasing awareness that financial markets are setting the agenda for political, social, and economic politics on an international scale. In recent days we saw on our television screens horrific images of riots in the cradle of democracy — Greece.

In Italy an elected prime minister, albeit a corrupt and venal one, was removed as a result of the demands of bankers.

Austerity measures in this country and overseas are being implemented because of the demands of the financial elites and rating agencies.

Unfortunately, these decisions are being made on the advice and counsel of the same unelected and irresponsible men and women who engineered the credit crisis of 2008 and previous debacles.

This continuous assault on the living standards and ability of the poor and struggling middle class to achieve a decent and dignified lifestyle while the prosperous enjoy an increasingly more abundant way of life has been the norm for about four decades. Income inequality is becoming a more insidious and troubling aspect of all the industrialized nations.

In Greece many have suffered a 35 percent to 50 percent decrease in their income because of the austerity measures taken. These decreases are rendered harsher because of the continuing increases for the basic necessities of existence.

Emigration again is commonplace in Ireland because of the austerity measures taken. Portugal, again a country whose government fell because of austerity measures taken as a result of the insistence of the financial markets, has seen their economy diminish in strength as a result of the above-mentioned measures.

In Italy, the government is attempting to weaken legislation that protects workers. In our country, there is a systemic and coordinated assault on collective bargaining rights of workers.

Many states have introduced and/or enacted legislation that weakens or denies workers the right to organize and barginover working conditions, compensation, and benefits.

Wisconsin’s governor is in a political battle because voters want him removed because of his support and initiative to end collective bargaining for state workers.

In Indiana, a right to work law has been enacted. This allows workers to enjoy the benefits of union representation without paying union dues. This should be called the right to schnorr or freeload law. Ohio’s, Arizona’s, and New Jersey’s governors and legislators have demonstrated animus towards unions and workers.

Common political thought would be that the attacks on collective bargaining come from the right or from Republican officials and not from Democrats or the left.

Democrat politicians, including the spineless wonder in the White House, are also in the employ of Goldman Sachs and the titans of Wall Street, the City, Bay Street, and the other financial markets that set the agenda of political discourse in most of the forums and legislatures world wide.

Our present tenant of the White House ignored the attacks on collective bargaining in his state of the union address in January. This address was his first major campaign message for the 2012 campaign and this lack of zeal to buttress the only private organizations that have a track record in helping the working poor and struggling middles class achieve a decent standard of living and some democracy at work is troubling.

All his rhetoric regarding restoring decent paying employment for Americans without the component including stronger and vibrant union representation will see increased employment and continued economic disparity and income inequality.

Economic justice and workplace democracy is an imperative for a safer more civil society. Unions help workers achieve clout in setting wages and working conditions. Unions prevent intolerable conditions to continue. Hotel workers in this city, through the collective bargaining process, have won a decent wage packet, free medical coverage without co-payments, and a buzzer system in the event of a dangerous situation to be supplied by the management of the hotels. All this in a time of economic downturn! Hotels in this city are seeing record profits and the hotel workers and their unions could use their resources to achieve fair treatment for the worker. Many industries in this country are seeing record profits and their employees are not seeing any benefit from their toil that helped the company achieve the profits. Without unions to represent the workers, companies will use their profits to reward the more affluent.

Democratic mayors and governors are also promoting anti-union legislation.

Teachers, police, firefighters, emergency workers, health care workers are increasingly asked to make sacrifices because of the economic situation we are all subject to because of the financial crisis of 2008.

Unions and union workers have helped save this state and city in the past. Union auto workers helped save our automobile industry. It is unfortunate our president failed to mention it was union workers who made the sacrifice. He stated only that management and workers with government assistance saved our auto industry. Union workers were those workers – it is important to stress this!

Governor Cuomo has also joined the anti-worker campaign. His executive budget includes a creation of a new tier for the pension plans of nurses, scientists, police, firefighters, teachers, and state and local civil servants. In 2009 a tier 5 pension plan was adopted which will save the state $35 billion over the next 30 years. Our state pension fund is 100 percent fully funded for state employees.

The state pension fund has been in existence for 90 years and has always met its obligations.

Cuomo characterizes civil servant pensions as generous but the average pension is $19,151 per annum and 76 percent of all pensions are less than $30,000. Governors, legislators, and local officials also are part of the pension plan and their pensions are well above the amount received by your neighbors that work as civil servants. These elected leaders are not forgoing their pensions – only making the less well paid civil servant pay more for less benefit.

Economic inequality is never a concern. Our city and local governments’ pension costs have increased because of the financial crisis of 2008 and not because of pension costs. State and local civil servants receive defined benefit pensions that ensure a decent and dignified retirement.

Most workers have been given defined contribution plans in recent years causing workers economic insecurity. Instead of demanding employers again institute defined contribution plans our politicians have decided all workers public and private must live with economic insecurity. Economic insecurity and a lack of collective bargaining leads to more political and social inequality and maybe in the future the violence we have witnessed in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Greece.

Cuomo’s new tier six pension plan includes a 40lk option that cannot guarantee a secure retirement. Financial firms also benefit because of the necessary investment choices enrollees must select. 40lk plan is presented as an option but Tier six enrollees will be required to contribute at least ten percent to the defined contribution plan and benefits are considerably less than the other tier pension plans. The 40lk plan will appear more attractive to new employees – but the choice is irrevocable.

Most legislators and the state controller are in opposition to this plan but if the budget measure includes the tier six proposal the legislators may feel compelled to accept the proposal rather than reject the entire budget. Bullying is not limited to the schoolyard.

In many constitutions the right to collectively bargain and strike are enshrined as a fundamental condition for democracy.

Germany, Japan, and Italy all have clauses in their constitutions that guarantee collectively bargaining. These former fascist regimes after the Second World War realized the significance of social justice and the role of worker participation to achieve a more equitable and just society.

Considering the attacks on unions and the economic deterioration of the middle class and working poor; it may be time to consider an amendment to our constitution guaranteeing the right to collectively bargain. Laws alone are inadequate.

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