Union battle is about history and future

Public employees may keep their bargaining rights in the current showdown. But union leaders need to make adjustments to maintain public support.

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Protesters crowd Wisconsin's state Capitol during a demonstration against Gov. Scott Walker's proposals to take away public employees' bargaining rights.

Public employees may keep their bargaining rights in the current showdown. But union leaders need to make adjustments to maintain public support.

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.

Since that time, America has changed and so has the labor movement. The industrial unions, in goods-producing industries, have turned from free trade to protectionism. They opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and remain opposed to a restart of the Doha Round global trade negotiations. Their members, along with retail and other workers, now constitute only about 7 percent of the private-sector workforce.

Union power now is concentrated in public-sector unions. Some 36 percent of the public-sector workforce is unionized. Until recently at least, both public employment and public-sector union membership had been rising.

About half of all delegates typically attending a Democratic National Convention are public-employee union members.  More than half of the members of the Washington State Legislature are present or former public employees.  Public-employee unions are the largest financial contributors to Democratic political campaigns.

It is a good deal for Democratic candidates. Taxpayers pay the salaries and benefits of public employees. Public-employee unions then use their members' dues to finance campaigns of favored elected officials and candidates. The elected officials then increase the size of the public sector and size of the pay and benefits to public employees. The unions' officers, in turn, reward the officials with additional money and votes to sustain them in office. And so on. Pretty much the story of this state's politics.

This brings us to now. Had the 2009-10 financial collapse not taken place — and had public deficits and debt not become Topic No. 1 in 2010 midterm elections — little would have changed. But if you are a governor, legislator, mayor, or local council member, you face a legal requirement to get your budget in balance. If you are president or in the Congress, you cannot be seen as responsible for rising deficits and debt.  You must be preceived as working to reduce them.

The pressure on state and local officials is far greater than on national ones. The former must wipe out their deficits right now. The feds can take longer — appoint entitlement commissions, hold hearings, reduce discretionary spending incrementally — and then, when finally forced to do so, can come to a Grand Compromise. That could come next year or 10 years from now, depending on the degree of public pressure the electeds feel at the polling booth.

Unsurprisingly, the Midwest GOP governors are stressing the modest concessions they are asking from public-employee unions regarding pay, benefit, and retirement contributions. The unions are stressing the governors' demands for concessions regarding collective bargaining. Both are taking positions they know will garner public support.

Ordinary voters and taxpayers consider public employees overpaid and want their public costs reduced. On the other hand, the same voters and taxpayers consider the unions' collective-bargaining rights as something hard won and to which they are entitled.

President Barack Obama, in his initial response to the Wisconsin showdown, said it was necessary to hold down public costs everywhere. But he also indicated the governor's action smacked of union-busting. The president's re-election committee, and allied groups, went online to plead for support for the unions. Then, however, the president at least publicly backed off on that posture, saying it really was a state-level matter.

If you have been around politics, you will recognize here a time-proven tactic.  With his base in the electorate weakened after last November's elections, Obama sought to energize and inflame his public-employee core supporters. Then, however, came the realization that he might be energizing his base but alienating more numerous independent voters less sympathetic to teachers and other public-employee unions.

Every institution evolves. It's a familiar story that political revolutionaries give way to administrators who give way to unresponsive, unimaginative bureaucrats. It's an equally familiar story that successful businesses are built by visionary entrepreneurs, are then handed over to bureaucratic managers, and then lose energy and head downward when increasingly focused inward rather than on the needs of their customers and investors.

The same story holds true for labor unions. The justice-seeking heroes and heroines who built the early American labor movement in time gave way to transitional managers who now have given way to leaders focused mainly on their own narrow interests, rather than those of the society at large.

The short-term outlook: The Wisconsin and other GOP governors appear to have overreached. They will win some immediate wage and benefit concessions from public employees. But no more.

The long-term outlook: Public-employee unions must voluntarily step up to make some sacrifices or, in the next round, public opinion will turn against them and question their right to exist.

The average American — to the degree there is such a person — no longer identifies with labor unions and union objectives as my generation did. It is union leaders' task to get their own objectives in line with those of the majority of Americans. They used to correlate. In the case of public-sector unions, in particular, they no longer do.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.