Wisconsin and several other states are in the midst of turmoil as Republican governors attempt to check the growth in teachers' and other public employees' benefits — and to restrict the unions' collective-bargaining power.
Just about every state and locality, including Washington, is burdened by wage, benefit, and pension commitments made to public-employee unions during good times, which are unsustainable over the long run and which somehow must be reduced in 2011 if budgets are to be balanced. Democratic governors and mayors, too, are part of this, although far less confrontational toward their longtime labor allies than their GOP counterparts.
Beneath the surface, of course, this is more than a struggle over near-term public budget cuts. It is about political and other power at the national, state, and local levels and who is to control the public agenda. (Seven states, it should be noted, already ban collective bargaining for public employees.) The struggle also reflects the huge changes that have taken place in the labor movement since it took hold in America in the turbulent 1930s.
Where has labor been? Where is it going?
When I was born in Depression-era Bellingham, my father, an unskilled sawmill worker, was part of an effort to unionize the Bloedel-Donovan mill on the waterfront. It took a three-year strike to win the right to unionize. There was two-way violence between strikers and strikebreakers. My dad spent time in city jail after leveling with a folding chair three strikebreakers who invaded the Labor Temple, where he was on duty alone.
Later there were battles between AFL and CIO factions for control of the union, between hard leftist and more moderate members, between skilled and unskilled union members for their share of the pie in the first labor contracts. I valued my Saturday mornings. I joined Dad at the Up&Up Tavern as he had shots and beers with his mill pals; then we went to the Labor Temple for a weekly rally and meeting.
John McMahon, the mill superintendent, lived just up the block from us. His home was only slightly more expensive than ours (which cost $900 in 1940). McMahon and my dad got along quite amiably, despite their differences. Dad, an unskilled worker, remarked at the time that "John McMahon and I understand each other and know what the other one wants. My problem is with skilled workers, who could care less what pay and benefits we plain guys need." Dad's salary was $1.84 per day before unionization. It increased sharply after unionization but lagged far behind that of skilled union members. (Dad was describing a familiar syndrome in almost all political and social institutions; the groups most resentful of each other are those closest in the pecking order.)
After World War II, when the mill closed, Dad got a job as a baker and joined the Bakers and Confectionery Workers Union. The union's president, James Cross, was indicted for running off with the pension-fund proceeds, which left the rank-and-file without retirement benefits. Therein lay another lesson that we see repeated often: Greed and selfishness are present in even the most supposedly virtuous organizations.
As a young reporter and editor, I was a member of the Newspaper Guild. I never again worked in a unionized position, although I would have been pleased to do so. Like most others of my age and political persuasion, I regarded unions as a major force for progress domestically and internationally. And they truly were.
Only a few years later, I found myself working in Democratic national campaigns and administrations. In the 1964 Johnson-Humphrey campaign against Sen. Barry Goldwater, there was an 8 a.m. daily meeting attended by key campaign staff and at least a dozen labor-union political officers. In 1965, as the Great Society took shape, the meetings moved to the White House proper and similarly included a large labor contingent.
Organized labor, after all, had been the single strongest force in our society for progressive change. It provided the shock troops, money, and organization to push forward not only a labor-related agenda but the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, and the programs that constituted the War on Poverty. At that time about one-third of American workers were unionized, concentrated especially in big industrial unions such as the Steelworkers and Auto Workers. Later, during the 1980s, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and federation members formed a bulwark of support for the Polish Solidarity Movement and other eastern European movements that pierced the Iron Curtain, brought down the Berlin Wall, and triggered the end of the Soviet Union itself.
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