Saturday, May 1, 2010


credit: Jeff Crosby
Here are those “$70,000-a-year librarians, living off our taxes!” Members of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Saugus, Mass.
In 2008, my local union was approached by librarians in Saugus, Mass. They wanted to form a union. As the only city workers without a union, they were easy targets during budget cuts and hadn’t had a raise in four years. It worked out. But I sure got a taste of the insane ranting against public-sector workers in the newspaper blogs.
Who’s paying the $70,000 salaries for those union librarians?” demanded one anonymous coward. The librarians had no union at the time. A librarian with a master’s degree made about $19 an hour. With a 35-hour workweek, she was missing about half the salary imagined by anonymous.
Public-sector union members are now the majority of the labor movement, 51.5 percent
, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The destruction of private-sector unions leaves public-sector unions naked in the gun sites of the right. Fresh from a brutal New Jersey state Senate session where Communications Workers of America (CWA)
state employees were under attack, the CWA District 1 political director mused that the biggest problem we have there is that there are no longer 60,000 union auto assembly workers in New Jersey. None.
The howling against public-sector unions has become the dominant theme in mainstream commentary on state and municipal budget issues. ”One dreams of a day when the populace will finally rise up and overthrow the tyranny of organized labor,” an early bloodhound in Boston Magazine bellowed
Last year, the hue and cry grew louder. The “greater good,editorialized
the Boston Globe, requires cutting public-sector workers’ health care benefits. Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby decried the “myth of the underpaid public employee,” citing a “double-dipping Florida college president” and a corrupt detective in Buffalo. At year’s end, America’s “coddled and spoiled
” public-sector grunts had even drawn the attention of Britain’s Economist.
My favorite comment came from the footloose shape-changer, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who demanded, “Why should taxpayers pay for health care for public employees that we don’t have ourselves?” The born-with-a-silver-spoon Romney is a bit inexact over what “we” he is talking about, since he has never had to worry about his health care in his pampered life.
But the fact is that we are in deep trouble when the future of the movement depends so much on the public-sector unions. Public-sector workers are trying to hold onto pensions and health care benefits that often have been slashed in the public sector. Even within our own ranks, private-sector members grumble they already have taken the pension hits and wonder why public-sector workers resist doing the same when there is no money in city and state treasuries.
There are no easy answers to all this. But the problem is urgent, so here are some thoughts on how we might protect both public workers’ living standards and public services for the rest of us.
  1. Tell Our Story, Make it Personal
School employees here in Lynn were demonized by our former mayor. If you collected workers’ compensation, you were a thief, etc. Their union responded with heroic and often successful efforts to elect sympathetic folks to the school board. But the story of the hard-working custodians, secretaries and lunch moms remains untold. Custodians deal with all kinds of technical problems in a school, respond to teachers, parents and students and work till they drop in August getting ready for the new school year. One of the local leaders regularly threw a barbecue for his school on his own dime. The square feet covered per custodian has risen dramatically over the past 10 years. But almost no one knows any of this.
When the story is personalized, a lot of the animus against our members disappears. The anonymous librarian makes an easy target, but everyone likes Mary, the librarian, who lives on their block and whose kids go to the same school as theirs.
2. Avoid Abusive Practices
One worker wandering the town while on the clock hurts all the rest who do their job. When I talk about how we deal with drug testing in the private sector, I’m told by city union friends that there is a different “bargaining culture” in the city unions. Perhaps then, it is a culture in need of a change.
Whether it’s fair or not, if I am “off the property, on the clock” while working for General Electric (GE), it’s GE that is losing a couple of bucks worth of my labor. If I’m on the city payroll, everyone out there is thinking about the money that comes out of their pockets to pay your weekly check. As a local union official, I know how that feels! In a sense, we are all building trades members now. Workers in the trades know that any problems in the quality of their work will result in their getting undercut by rat contractors who pay half the wages and cheat on their taxes. At this point, we all need to think that way. If we fail to do so, we make it harder for our most loyal and principled friends in the state legislatures to vote their convictions against some of the savage attacks on state workers that are in the wings.
3. Fight Public Corruption
The last three speakers of the House in Massachusetts have all been indicted—two convicted, and counting. All “our guys” who received union support over the years. Until last year, a single day on the payroll could add a year’s pension benefits. An appointee to a library board with four annual meetings (which she neglected to attend), received pension credits for that rigorous service. In Illinois, the former governor who tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat was last seen on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
These kinds of things almost never involve union workers. State pensions in Massachusetts average less than $26,000. The median state employee’s salary in Texas is about $32,000 a year, and they haven’t had a pension increase for nine years. But the public often sees the unions as in cahoots with corrupt elected officials. Criticism of abuses generally comes from the right-wing tea party cabal, or anti-worker, good government liberals, with predictable results.
Breaking with the “see no evil” approach isn’t easy, since state officials are often the same people the unions have relied on for decades to protect them. The library board appointee I mentioned above was the wife of a former Democratic state representative. A mutual protection pact was never a good strategy, and at this point it obviously doesn’t work.
4. Talking Taxes
There’s no way out of the current public-sector crisis without taking on the tax issue. In 1994, Donald Bartlett and James Steele, authors of America: Who Really Pays Taxes?, wrote:

In 1954, corporations paid seventy-five cents in taxes for every dollar paid by individuals and families. In 1994, they will pay about 20 cents for every dollar….

Some estimates put the current corporate tax load at 8 percent of overall tax revenues
. As Les Leopold points out in The Looting of America, the individual tax shift during the Reagan years from the rich to the working class is even more dramatic:

From 1983 to 1989, the top 0.5 percent of all families saw their combined wealth increase by $1.45 trillion, while the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of families went down by $256 trillion. Remarkably, during those same years the federal debt rose by $1.49 trillion. It was as if the entire federal debt had been awarded directly to the superrich.

It seems like hardly a day goes by without another exposure of corporate tax rip-offs, which create none of the promised jobs
[often next to a story about the state's budget crisis or crumbling infrastructure.
Tennessee state university workers pointed out that we could bring home 64 soldiers from Afghanistan and save enough annually to eliminate the full $64 million proposed to higher education in Tennessee. The blogger Numerian points out
that the
combined deficits of all 50 states last year was around $180 billion—coincidentally about the same amount that the United States has spent bailing out AIG.
In Illinois, AFSCME rallied for a more progressive state tax structure
to save services and jobs. Oregon unions and their allies already won a victory
for increasing business taxes. In Massachusetts, progressive state Sens. Jamie Eldridge and Sonia Chang-Diaz wrote:
"Increasing the income tax by 1 percent would raise approximately $2 billion for the Commonwealth" and that it "relies more heavily on those who can most afford to pay it."
An income tax "recognizes the difference
between who has been laid off and those who still have a job,
" unlike the sales tax
. [They argue for a progressive income tax, as already exists in 34 states. Tax fights will be tough, even savage, especially in the short term. But we cannot cede this ground to ignorance and corporate plunder.]
5. Rely on Our Members and Fight
I hear union leaders complain all the time that the major papers won’t carry their side of the story. No kidding. This is capitalism, with a capitalist-owned press. So you have to do something so dramatic and newsworthy that it cannot be ignored. Or perhaps we still actually have members who are willing to stand in front of a supermarket and leaflet and talk to their neighbors.
Step one in any strategy is to face the facts, to understand the ground on which we stand. And the old model of sending checks to elected officials who will vote our way no longer works, not in this era of state and local budget crises, pension fund losses and surging medical costs.
Several years ago I visited Cali, Colombia, and met with leaders of a public-sector union there, SINTRAEMCALI. Six of their leaders had been assassinated in a campaign to privatize water and electricity. When I stopped a woman in the EMCALI building and asked her why the fight against privatization was so important, she replied, “Because if we lose, the poor will have no water,” citing the situation in Barranquilla. In the slums there, water is sold off a truck, once a week. She didn’t respond, “to save my pension.” And she didn’t say, “to save collective bargaining.” Today 92.8 percent of private-sector workers don’t have collective bargaining, and it doesn’t resonate to make that the principle issue. At least call it “due process”.
Either we change the public perception of government—equating the public sector with the public good with each word we speak—or we lose public jobs and services. And that hurts us all.

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