America’s Union Suppression Movement (and Its Apologists), Part One

April 19, 2013

Last week, in “Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?”, I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.

The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions.[1] Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.

Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today. [2] At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack. [3]

Even this stark description understates the true depth of the crisis. At the end of WW II, public sector workers in the ranks of organized labor were a small fraction of their private sector counterparts. Today, that relationship is dramatically reversed: 4 in 11 American public sector workers belong to a union, while only 1 in 15 private sector workers are unionized. Public sector workers are organized at more than five times the rate of private sector workers. The explosive growth of public sector unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s took place just as private sector industrial unions were beginning to hemorrhage from a ‘race to the bottom’ fueled by technological change and a deeply flawed model of economic globalization dominated by corporate interests (see herehere, and here).

These trends were reinforced by weak labor law that was increasingly tilted against the rights of workers and poorly enforced, a development condemned by Human Rights WatchFreedom House and Amnesty International. In this context, the emergence of the leading public sector unions – the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – masked a great deal of the blood-letting to the industrial unions that had been the heart and soul of the American labor movement from the New Deal onward.

For decades, public sector unions have decried the harm done to American working people as a result of the decline of private sector unions. Others have pointed to the long term economic damage done to the U.S. by this anti-union campaign.  The mounting economic inequality that has plagued the United States since the 1970s is, in significant measure, an artifact of the shrinking political and economic power of the American labor movement, a phenomenon that tracks with the decline of the once mighty industrial unions. [4]

But, until recently, public sector unions believed that the nature of their members’ work provided important protection against the economic globalization that has decimated private sector unions. It is not possible, after all, to offshore the nursing of critically ill patients, the policing of communities, or the teaching of reading to children in the same way that unionized manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad to low-wage, authoritarian settings that deny workers the right to organize into free, independent unions. That difference was sufficient, many believed, to prevent public sector workers from being drawn into the ‘race to the bottom.’

The great economic downturn of the last five years has shown this belief to be an illusion. The loss of union density in America’s private sector, with the resultant decline of salaries, benefits and working conditions, has left public sector workers and their unions vulnerable to a politics of fear and resentment, which seeks to cast them as a privileged class.

One telling example can be found in the attacks on public sector workers’ retirement plans. The decline of industrial unions has been accompanied by the systematic dismantling of private sector workers’ “defined benefit” pension plans, which had guaranteed retirement security to generations of America’s unionized workers. Unionized public sector workers, who for the most part still possessed such plans, were then exposed to a right-wing campaign arguing that government could not afford such ”rich” retirement plans. A demagogic appeal was made to private sector workers: “why should a teacher, a nurse or a firefighter have such retirement benefits, when you, who finance that retirement with your taxes, do not?” Similar attacks were launched on public sector salaries and health insurance, in hopes of fueling a backlash movement that would weaken public sector unions and leave their members with diminished real income and living conditions. [5]

In a coordinated campaign, corporate-financed advocacy and “think tank” groups launched an attack on the due process rights of public sector workers, such as teacher tenure, with the objective of forcing workers into nonunion, ”at will” employment. If successful, this campaign against public sector unionization would leave workers in the same diminished condition as their private sector brethren.

The campaign against public sector workers and their unions reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the 2010 elections that swept Tea Party Republicans to power in numerous states. Fearful that the demographics of 21st century America were stacked against them (and the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party), Tea Party activists opened up two major fronts in their fight to retain power:  On the one hand, they advocated for “voter suppression” laws, designed to make it more difficult for core Democratic constituencies – people of color, immigrants and the poor – to vote. On the other hand, they pushed forward on “union suppression” laws, designed to undermine the core strength of the American trade union movement in the electoral arena – public sector unions. In the wake of the 2010 midterms, as the nation followed the gripping struggle of public employees in Wisconsin to retain their right to free association and collective bargaining, similar battles were being waged in state capitols across the nation. In each and every state, the theme of public employee privilege was played out with a strategy to incite fear and resentment.

To appreciate the full power of the forces now arrayed against American unions, consider that, at the height of the Wisconsin struggle, 9 of the 10 individuals on the Forbes list of the top ten richest Americans were actively financing part of the campaign against public sector unions. With U.S. income inequality at the highest levels since just before the Great Depression, it appears that the nation’s corporate elite are intent on delivering a coup de grâce to what remains of the American labor movement.

- Leo Casey

*****

[1] Research shows that there is no evidence that “right to work” laws enhance productivity, encourage innovation or create jobs; they do, however, tend to lower wages and labor standards. Unions, on the other hand, can serve to generate higher wages, which leads to higher consumption and demand, and thus greater economic activity.

[2] This and subsequent data on union membership trends is drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report on the subject. For the latest report, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Members – 2012” available here. The high point of the American trade union movement preceded the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by a Republican-Dixiecrat dominated Congress that overrode a veto by President Harry Truman. Among other things, Taft-Hartley authorized the passage of state “right to work” laws, with the goal of keeping multiracial unions from gaining a significant foothold in the Jim Crow South. The CIO’s Operation Dixie, a post-WW II campaign to organize unions in the South, was thwarted in significant part by right to work laws passed in the Deep South. The recent passage of right to work legislation in Indiana and Michigan is significant in the extension of right to work laws into what had been labor’s heartland.

[3] For measures of union density, see the chart at UnionStats. The only comparable rates of density to K-12 education are found in considerably smaller sections of the public sector, such as fire fighters, and parts of the transportation industry, such as flight attendants.

[4] See Timothy Noah, The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012. See also Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in American Wage Inequality” available here.

[5] These charges do not stand up to scholarly examination, see hereherehere, and here, but they remain part of the standard attack on public sector employees.

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Leo Casey

Leo Casey is the United Federation of Teachers vice president of academic high schools. Beginning in the fall of 2012, he will serve as executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute.