Around Christmas 1981, facing the threat of a Soviet invasion, Polish tanks rolled across Poland to put down a huge insurgency by Solidarity, the celebrated trade union. President Ronald Reagan responded by condemning the crackdown, defending the right to strike and calling trade unions “one of the most elemental human rights.”
Maybe Reagan was recalling his years as a union boss with the Screen Actors Guild. But even then, his memory must have been slipping. For just months earlier, he, too, had responded to a strike by the nation’s air traffic controllers by firing 11,000 of them, barring them from federal employment for life and busting their union -- calling it a threat to the American economy.
Clearly, it is the union-busting Reagan, not the union-admiring one, that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker appealed to in amassing some $46 million, most from out of state, to fight a recall election. Walker won last Tuesday. He did so on the strength of a single, central idea: that unions and collective bargaining rights are evil.
Walker’s election is a preview of what we’ll see leading up to November. It is the latest illustration of a common theme in American politics, when an “elemental human right” is turned on its head and used to stir prejudice.
We’ve seen the tactic used against women during the suffragette era, against blacks during the civil rights era and against immigrants since the founding of the nation. We've seen it used against gays, whose fight for equality became an effective get-out-the-homophobe-vote tactic in 2004 and 2008. Now we see it used against unions and their collective bargaining rights.
Those rights aren’t ever going to hurt you and me. They are a negotiating issue, not an economic issue. They give workers a stronger voice against bosses, slightly leveling a field disproportionately slanted toward management.
Labor unions have their excesses, their heavy-handed policies, their at-times expensive dues. But in the conduct of business, they can’t hold a candle to the rapacity of companies that outsource workers, offshore profits, evade taxes, shirk environmental responsibilities and, as the crisis of 2008 showed us, would have wrecked the nation’s economy absent government bailouts.
Labor unions demand job security, better wages, stable health and retirement benefits. Those are essential rights of the workplace, historically secured not by managers and owners, but by unions. Dues and strikes have been a small price to pay for the windfall benefiting all workers, non-union workers included. But labor’s day is over: It’s 11.8 percent of the workforce (6.3 percent in Florida in 2011), down from a third of the wage-earning workforce in 1960.
What the Wisconsin battle shows is that the war on labor, an American tradition as old as bigotry, is as brutal as ever, despite where that war has left us.
Take a look at the largest employers of the 1960s, when labor unions were at their strongest: GM, AT&T, GE, Ford, US Steel, Westinghouse, General Dynamics, Chrysler, ITT, International Harvester. All powerful manufacturing companies that literally built the nation and that the world depended on, and did it with well-paid union labor whose retirees fill Florida homes.
Look at the largest employers of 2010: Walmart, McDonald’s, Target, Pepsi, CVS Pharmacy; Kelly Services, the temp agency; and Yum, the operator of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants. Virtually all non-union companies that build nothing and pay their workers barely subsistence wages, but serve as the feedlots of consumers. That’s not prosperity. It’s economic obesity on credit. Sure there’s Silicon Valley and Apple innovations. But they use slave labor from abroad, where collective bargaining is as alien as a square meal.
So go ahead. Celebrate the demise of labor unions if you like. Ultimately, the demise you’re celebrating is that of our economy. The evidence is all around.
Pierre Tristam is editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news service based in Palm Coast, Fl.
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