Broad economic changes--from globalization and outsourcing, to technological changes in manufacturing, shipping, delivery--have forced both public and private unions into a generation of givebacks which not only have worsened financial conditions of members but also have undermined union strength. Sometimes is has seemed that the only job of union leaders has been to negotiate the size of layoffs and pay and benefits cuts for member every few years.
It started of course with the union-busting Ronald Regan's wholesale firing of the nation's air traffic controllers in 1981 because the had gone on strike. It was a moment that changed labor relations in America forever--making replacing striking workers no longer anathema but standard operating practice and neutering the strike, organize labor's most powerful weapon, as leverage.
From that day to this, it has been one roll back after another for union workers. The ensuing years have led to shrinking wages, shrinking workforces, and shrinking pensions for blue collar union workers--who once could count on working class jobs that paid enough and provided enough stability to allow them to buy a home, to pay for the next generation to become college educated and to retire, opening up jobs for new workers.
But lo these 30 years, as union power has waned under an organized, post-Regan assault, blue collar non-service jobs have disappeared from these shores, and the American dream of class mobility has eroded, it has been the enduring and passionately-cherished dream of conservatives generally and the Republican party in particular to eliminate unions in the United States altogether.
And the battle raging in Wisconsin between Republican lawmakers and state workers may be a decisive one in determining whether or not conservatives achieve their dream.
Make no mistake about it, destroying the ability of the state's public workers to unionize and negotiate from the position of strength in numbers--and by extension beginning the process of dismantling public workers unions across the country--is the dark heart of the proposed law that has driven thousands of workers into the streets and led Democratic lawmakers to flee the state to prevent the state's senate from achieving a quorum.
Need proof? Listen to this interview from last night's Hardball broadcast that Chris Matthews conducted with Wisconsin State Sen. Glenn Grothman:
MATTHEWS: Would you like to get rid of the public employee unions altogether, just get rid of them?
GROTHMAN :...Personally I would yes.
MATTHEWS: So you don't believe in collective bargaining for public employees period?
GROTHMAN: No I don't think public employees need collective bargaining, that's correct.
Here is the crux of the issue that his driven state workers into the streets and Democratic lawmakers across state lines. It's not the givebacks proposed in the bill--an increase in the amount of money workers contribute to their pension fund and health care coverage--which Democratic lawmakers say they are open to negotiating. It is the sweeping language that will strip state workers of the power to collectively bargain on any issue but wages--not work rules, not workplace safety, not pensions, that have people up in arms.
Stripping unions of the power to negotiate on behalf of members has nothing to do with closing Wisconsin's budget gap, but everything to do with wiping out the power of unions, and it serves only two interests--anti-union politicians who suffer at the hands of organized groups of voters who oppose them; and corporate interests who--as they did following Reagan's firing of the Patco workers--will use the political cover of the public measure to work to achieve the same kind of spaying of union power in the private sector.
The images of 15,000 workers in the streets, many occupying the Wisconsin state house, warms my heart. But it should also give lie to the grand, ludicrous fantasy of conservative populism--that the GOP is for the little guy and is doing what is can and should to give working stiffs a chance to better their economic circumstances.
It should go without saying that unionization and collective bargaining have done more to improve working conditions, salaries, job security, and the standard of living for working Americans than 30 years of upper income tax cuts, capital gains tax cuts, government spending cuts, and corporate deregulation--all those cherished measures that conservatives continually claim, falsely, are designed to improve economic conditions for average Americans.
It should go without saying, but in fact it needs to be said because too many Americans--including many whose own economic interests are much more closely aligned with those of the Wisconsin state workers than with those who do benefit from Republican economic policies--fall for the fraudulent rhetoric of GOP leaders like House Speaker John Boehner who had this to say about the situation in Wisconsin:
Republicans in Congress - and reform-minded GOP governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie - are daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government, and daring to commit themselves to solutions that will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity.
Stripping unions of their right to bargain will do exactly the opposite of putting our citizen on a path to prosperity, it will hasten the continuing erosion of decent paying working class jobs, decrease workplace safety, and expand the widening gap between rich asset owners in America and the working poor and middle classes. Don't believe the hype.