Friday, June 15, 2012

Public Dis-Unions

Recently, the political eyes of the country were turned towards the state of Wisconsin.  Wisconsin is a state with a long tradition of political activism supporting working Americans.  In this instance, the draw was the grass-roots effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker due to his aggressive tactics of budget cutting by ending public union bargaining rights.  It has been a contentious year in Wisconsin from this political turmoil, and the Lt. Governor and four state senators were also included in the recall effort.  Walker won the recall and retained his seat by a comfortable margin – only the 3rd governor nationally to be subject to a recall and the only one to hold onto his chair.

In the aftermath assessments of the outcome, attention focused on a) how and why Walker won in spite of the strong emotional push against him, and b) why almost a third of “union households” voted for him in spite of their union affiliation.  MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, an ardent working-class supporter and strong critic of Walker, wondered aloud, “Explain to me how union workers could vote for this guy.  I don’t get this.”  From my distant observation, there are two factors at work here: 1) political tactics, and 2) perceptions of unions.

Politically, millions of dollars of out-of-state money poured into Walker to support his campaign and make a political impact nationally.  Walker outspent his Democratic opponent $30 million to $4 million, a 7-1 advantage.  In Wisconsin, we have now seen the first real example of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” unfortunate decision allowing for unlimited spending by corporations and secret political groups.  Then in a tactical mistake, Democrats nominated to replace Walker their gubernatorial candidate who had already run in 2010 and lost against Walker.  In effect, the Democrats took a hot, potentially winnable election issue, and ran again the same losing candidate.  The issue needed a fresh face, a fresh spokesperson.  Instead, the race came off not looking like a referendum on public unions and their rights, but simply a “sour grapes” attempted rerun of the 2010 election by the “same ol’ pol.”  Voters do not like reruns.  (Nationally, only Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon came back from losses to subsequently win the presidency.)  The result was that Walker won by virtually the same margin of victory as before.  It was in fact just a rerun.  Once again as they have so many times before, the Republicans proved to be the better campaign strategists.

Then there was the core galvanizing issue of the public unions and their bargaining rights.  Walker had painted the unions as a prime culprit in overly-bloated state and municipal budgets.  But he was tactically smart by omitting the police and fire fighter unions – the ones who “protect and serve us” – from his budget-cutting and anti-union moves.  That somewhat neutralized a key constituent group and kept many of them out of the ranks of protest.  Which in turn left government administrators, teachers and their support personnel, and the many other public service employees as the prime budget targets.

American labor unions have had a long and proud history of fighting for better working conditions and fairer employment practices.  They have served as a needed counterweight to those managers who see employees as simply another expense line item diminishing potential profit or cost savings.  Through the middle of the 20th Century, unions enjoyed organizational strength and high membership, and generally had the support of the public.  But in the 1950s/1960s, revelations of corruption, Mafia connections, self-promoting unions leaders acting at the disservice of their members, and the large growth of “white collar” (i.e. non-union) jobs caused a progressive decline in union membership and support.  Today, the Department of Labor estimates that 12% of workers nationally are unionized.  But union membership in private industry is only around 7%, while an estimated 36% of public employees are unionized.

Most of the public now see labor unions as an anachronistic relic providing little benefit to workers or to the public.  Job protection and the guarantee of continuous employment at any cost have seemingly become the only priorities for today’s union leaders.  Accurately or unfairly, many workers battered by our economic downturn see public employees as overly protected from the realities of the workplace, enjoying protections not available to those who pay their salaries through their taxes.  And they see government and schools not delivering on their promises and responsibilities, and public workers not performing up to expectations.  When people see non-needed jobs being filled, and confirmed non-performing employees staying on the payroll, these antagonisms grow worse.  Even from private industry union members frustrated with their public counterparts.  The result of this sense of public workers being unaccountable for their performance is an increasingly angry and unsupportive private sector that unfairly but understandably casts its complaints on the whole of these public professions – to the demoralization of the many good public employees who do work hard every day and give great value to their constituents.

Teachers, clerical workers, professional technicians, maintenance and road workers all have good stories to tell that are worthy of our recognition.  And given the management callousness and arrogance that we still see too often today, a counterbalance to management excess is certainly still needed.  But American labor unions are failing badly in this mission, thereby ceding most of their balancing functions to the government through labor laws and regulations governing employment conduct.

Public workers are far more dependent on public goodwill to survive than are private employees.  Until public workers and their unions begin to take leadership in solving our many problems instead of being seen as simply reactionary and obstructive to proposed solutions, and higher wages and absolute job security stop being the only goal heard from union leaders, that needed public support will continue to decline.  Trying to hold on to a past is not leadership, and today it is leadership that is sorely needed in America.  It is union members themselves who need to change what it means to be a union member within a collective union organization.  That change must come from within the ranks.  If unions, particularly public service unions, do not change, the world will continue to change around them without their input, and they will continue their slide towards irrelevance.

There are many lessons to be learned from Wisconsin.  And for better or for worse, we should expect to see many of those lessons applied in this coming fall’s elections.