OPINION- by Cody Lyon
On February 28, “The New York Times” published the article ‘Public Unions Debate How to Save Bargaining. ’ Inadvertently, the story raises deeper and very fundamental questions about the evolution of American attitudes towards work, compensation and the concept of job security. In particular, an assertion, that several new Republican leaders say they feel strong constituent support for taking on public sector unions, since private sector workers no longer enjoy the job protection, health benefits and, especially, pension plans that many state and local workers still have.
While some private sector resentment of public sector job security maybe understandable in this era of economic uncertainty, high unemployment and an increasingly less solvent Federal safety net for old age, one could argue that a lot of the ill feelings directed towards unions are misdirected, perhaps based on misinformation and collective short memory, due in part to the lack of solid, full reporting on union history. There are telling facts and statistics behind this story that Americans may want to keep in mind. Besides that, while many new Republican leaders may claim that much of their constituency is anti-union, there are many among the same community who would probably beg to differ.
Regardless, an exception to any real or perceived dearth of information was “The New Yorker’s” Hendrik Hertzberg who noted in a dramatic March 7 Talk of the Town piece called “Union Blues” that ‘organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled-and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated-an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. “ He points out that back in 1980, ‘the best off one tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. The top one percent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. A quick look at data from the United States Department of Commerce and the IRS appears to confirm much of Hetzberg’s statistical assertions. Hertzberg also points out that these days, more union members are government workers than private employees.
Now on to the other current reality. While there’s no doubt that many city and state public service unions are going to have to deal with new, in some cases, grim economic realities, there are more realistic sacrifices members can make and government leaders might consider, rather than the radical dismantling of the negotiating tool. For whatever reasons, a number of states and cities are dangerously teetering on the brink of broke. And, there’s no doubt that the generous compensatory benefit, say a teacher or cop gets to work 20 years, and then gets full retirement benefits, well, that seems a bit ‘far fetched’ and generous to many taxpayers today in this new economic atmosphere. And, it would be unrealistic to sugar coat or romanticize the often checkered past of private sector union culture and its rashes of corruption throughout American history. It hasn’t all just been one big Norma Rae story at the Cotton Mill.
Still though, it might also serve Americans to call upon the greater spirits of worker history in this nation and remember too, that it wasn’t unions who over time stripped private sector workers of any sense of collective bargaining power over the years, it was the company hunger for a better bottom line on Wall Street. Although they’ve been blamed for it, unions didn’t decimate entire cities and regions of the nation when they closed up shop for cheaper, some might say, less than moral working pools of cheap labor in lands across the sea. And it was not unions, who began to dilute and destroy the dignity of the bargaining tool, those fundamental negotiations between a company and its workers who all, in the end, had a vested interest in that company’s product quality and its financial well being. Not to be to simplistic, but after-all, it was those negotiations that created many an American dream, those countless stories of job security, health benefits and allowed entire swaths of Americans living less worrisome and more dignified ‘golden’ years. The hope is that the private sector American workers lucky enough to be employed are not simply settling on simple contentment with a system that takes its labor for granted.