Wednesday, 23 February 2011

American labour fights back

As the Middle East continues to be rocked by protests, in America the Middle West is experiencing its own protest movement spreading like prairie fire. It started in Wisconsin last week, where the newly-elected Republican governor is trying to pass a union-busting bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. Union public employees - teachers, prison guards, firefighters - took over the Wisconsin state capital building in Madison and haven't left the area since. And the 14 Democratic senators in the state's senate have left the state so that a quorum can't be reached to vote on the bill.

Since then the protests have spread to other states where Republican governors are trying to push through anti-union bills. Democratic lawmakers in Indiana fled their state yesterday to prevent a vote on a similar bill. Also yesterday thousands of protesters converged on the statehouse in Ohio to protest an anti-union bill there. And in Michigan protests broke out in the state capital of Lansing against that state's union-busting bill.

This isn't all part of a coordinated nation-wide union movement. Rather, it is captal-by-capital rection to a coordinated effort by Republican governors and state representatives to introduce bills which they say are needed to balance the state budgets. But these bills also contain, in the fine print, provisions to strip union organising rights from state public employees. They say the state governments, which are largely broke due to the economic crisis, can no longer afford to pay out the benefits the labor unions have spent decades negotiating for. And in large part, they're right. But in addition to proposing to cut salaries and benefits for public employees, the Republican governors and legislators are also pursuing a secondary tactic: strip the unions of their right to collectively bargain, or their ability to even exist at all. And that is what has attracted the protests.

Take Wisconsin for example. The governor says the cuts to union salaries and benefits is necessary to fix the budget shortfall of $137 million (a shortfall largely due to the governor's package of $117 million in corporate tax breaks passed earlier this year). But in addition to these cuts, he's inserted a provision that would forbid public employees from ever collectively bargaining in the future and force unions to hold yearly votes on membership - something that has no fiscal benefit to the budget. The unions agreed to take the salary and benefit cuts, but said they would draw the line at forbidding collective bargaining. The governor has remained steadfast, refusing to remove that part of the bill. And so it's a stand-off between the man in the governor's mansion and the protesters outside.

Events have unfolded in much the same way in other states, where Republicans are inserting anti-union provisions in budget bills that have no economic benefit for the state. This is leading many to believe this isn't about balancing the budgets at all, but it is instead an effort to use the economic crisis to crush the public sector unions.

The issue has come roaring to a head this week, and it's been interesting to see Americans actually talking about the labor movement for once. Labor unions are largely an antiquated idea in the US as their membership has fallen dramatically over the past decades. Fifty years ago one out of three American families had a union member in it. Today that number is one in ten. Only 9% of Americans working in the private sector are in a union. But in the public sector union membership has remained strong and even increased, with 36% of public workers represented by unions. Still, since most people work in the private sector, the overall percentage of workers in a union hovers around 12%.

Because unions have become almost exclusively associated with the public sector, they've also become associated with strikes that shut down government services. And partly for this reason, unions have become pretty unpopular with the general American public. It's become common parlance in the United States to refer to union workers as "greedy" and "lazy" - and this language has been used by the American right-wing media to describe the protests happening in the Midwest this week. That's largely because most people aren't in a union, and they resent the very good benefits that union members have. As satirist Stephen Colbert noted last night,
"These state workers, they have better pension benefits, better health benefits. Why should they get something good because they've organized and fought for it, if other people don't have it? I know a rising tide raises all boats, but when the tide goes out I want to make sure I drag you down with me. Shouldn't everybody lead a shitty life?"
The fact is most American workers have seen their benefits and salaries (with inflation) cut drastically over the past decades. Workers in unions have been able to hold on to the benefits that, let's face it, most American workers should be entitled to (and what workers in Europe still have). But because most workers now don't have these benefits, they resent union members for holding on to them.

But that narrative seems to be changing this week, as there has been a groundswell of sympathy for the striking state workers in the Midwest. Polls are showing a majority of Americans oppose what the Wisconsin governor is doing. For someone who for most of my adult life usually only heard about unions in the US when they were being denigrated, this has been a surprising shift.

But beyond being just about unions, many protesters see themselves as taking a stand against something larger. They see Republicans, having riden voter discontent with the economy to strong election victories both at national and state levels in November, trying to use that mandate to impose ideologically-driven policies that have little to do with balancing the budget. Destroying the public sector unions has been a long-time dream of the Republican Party, particularly because they are the only large donors in American politics who give to Democrats.

Unions are a huge source of political and financial power for the Democratic Party, one which they've long taken for granted but without which they could not be a viable force in cash-infused American politics. Out of the top ten big contributor groups in last year's elections, seven were conservative (the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the usual suspects). The only three in that top ten that gave to Democrats - and they gave a lot - were all unions. Take those out of the picture by destroying their ability to negotiate or by thinning out their membership, and the Republican Party is left with almost all of the big money election funding. What does any of this have to do with balancing the budget? I have no idea. But it is clearly a big priority for the Republican governors' conference.

At the federal level Republicans seem to be engaged in the same tactic - using concerns about the budget to propose old ideologically-driven policy ideas. Last week the Republicans in the House of Representatives sent a continuing resolution on the budget to the senate which they say is necessary to rescue the US from the fiscal abyss. It doesn't cut anywhere near the amount that they promised to cut during the campaign (about a tenth of that amount in fact), but they say it's a start. So does it make cuts to the bloated defense budget or the unsustainable social security program or the faltering medicare program - which together make up 80% of US spending? No, it doesn't touch any of those three.

Instead, the Republican's bill would cut $3 billion from the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. And while they were at it, they inserted provisions to strip the EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions and bar it from making greenhouse gas regulations (which, incidentally, would make it near impossible for the US to sign up to a commitment to reduce its carbon emissions). The bill would also end all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the classic conservative bogeyman which provides abortions in addition to general reproductive and gynecological services. The bill would eliminate tax breaks for employers who have health insurance plans that offer abortion services. The bill even has a provision that would allow hospitals to refuse to perform an abortion on a woman even if she'll die if she doesn't have it. This is, again, a budget bill.

It boggles the mind why restricting abortions would be the highest priority for the Republican House of Representatives right now, but there it is. And they are threatening a potential government shutdown if the Democratic Senate doesn't pass their bill, because these things are "urgently needed" to solve America's fiscal crisis. Once again, a long-time Republican goal couched in the context of austerity. Meanwhile nobody on either side of the aisle is willing to be the first to step forward and propose cuts to the big three.

There are lessons to be learned in all of this for Europe I think. As centre-right governments across the continent announce their own raft of austerity cuts, the public would be wise to watch out for old ideologically-driven priorities creeping in there. Chances are there won't be the same sort of outrageous examples as we are seeing in the United States. But if this austerity route is really the way to go, then the cuts need to be made on a non ideologically-driven basis. It's up to the public to remind politicians of this fact.


Captain Kid said...

Now that's good news.

It's strange that I haven't heard anything about these protests.

Kallisti said...


But will our hope and change guy be able to withstand the republicans this time (with "let's negotiate the barn away" Emanuel out of the house) or is it meeting them half way before even starting the talks again?