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States of Denial

<p>About 15,000 people showed up at the Madison, Wis., Capitol on Feb. 15, calling on the legislature to defend collective bargaining and workers' rights.</p>

About 15,000 people showed up at the Madison, Wis., Capitol on Feb. 15, calling on the legislature to defend collective bargaining and workers' rights.

‘They have no shame’

Anti-labor legislators’ assault aims to divide workers, conquer unions

Anti-labor forces are working overtime to diminish public employee bargaining rights and negotiated gains under the guise of fixing government budget problems not of their making. Sound familiar? It should.

It’s the same divide-and-conquer strategy anti-union operatives used against UAW members during the 2008 auto crisis, when lawmakers blamed negotiated autoworker compensation for General Motors Corp.’s and Chrysler Group LLC’s financial instability – not uninspired management and unprecedented volatility in the U.S. and global financial markets – and orchestrated a political moment to try and weaken organized labor.

In the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections, anti-labor legislators and the conservative interests that handsomely fund them are ramping up the rhetoric to create political conditions that will allow passage of an assortment of anti-worker laws.

In the 14 battleground states – including Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – lawmakers are introducing bills to revoke state OSHA laws, nullify teacher tenure rights, prohibit project labor agreements, diminish pensions, create right-to-work zones, and rescind bargaining on health care and other mandatory bargaining subjects.

In Ohio, new Republican Gov. John Kasich is using his state’s financial problems to “break the back of organized labor in the schools” and rescind over 25 years of bargaining rights for Ohio state workers. In Wisconsin, new Gov. Scott Walker wants to abolish state employee bargaining and calls public employees the “haves” and Wisconsin taxpayers the “have nots.” In Michigan, more than 30 anti-labor bills were introduced since January.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones trying to weaken unionized workers by blaming public employees for state budget woes. Newly elected Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is also claiming that state employee compensation has created a significant share of New York’s financial deficit. His recently released 2011-2012 state budget proposal doesn’t renew a “millionaire’s tax” on high-earning individuals and protects corporations from tax increases.

But Cuomo laid off 900 state workers and is demanding that those who remain accept a one-year pay freeze. Economic experts agree that the savings generated by the layoffs and pay freeze are a drop in the bucket considering New York’s $9 billion structural budget deficit.

As the country’s economy begins to recover slowly from an unprecedented deep recession, high unemployment, and turmoil in the housing and financial markets due in large part to unregulated corporate greed, public services are in greater demand than ever. Pundits acknowledge that “slashing and burning” public employee pay and bargaining rights won’t solve fundamental government structural problems not the making of public employees and their unions. They add that an honest approach would focus on closing tax loopholes and exemptions favoring the wealthy and big business.

Experts also point to the solid middle-class jobs that government employment still offers in a sector where union density was 36.2 percent in 2010, compared to 6.9 percent in the private sector. Indeed, government often offers the best jobs in areas hit hard by economic downturns or distant from urban and suburban centers. The link between high union density and good-paying middle-class jobs is one that private sector union members can appreciate and harkens to the middle of the 20th century when one-third of private sector workers were union members who could achieve the American Dream of a home, car, affordable higher education for the kids and a dignified retirement.

“The targeted misinformation campaign against public employees is meant to inflame political attacks,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, director of the union’s Public Sector and Health Care Servicing Department. “This is exactly what the conservatives did during the auto crisis. They purposely blamed the UAW for GM and Chrysler’s financial problems and pitted workers suffering in the economic downturn against our members just so they could damage organized labor. Anti-UAW members of Congress were so determined to destroy our union that they were willing to let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt and put the entire country into a depression.


Thousands of union members, including these teachers, above, and activists turned out in rallies against Wisconsin Gov. Walker's so-called budget repair legislation.

“The conservatives are using the same tactic today to pit private employees against public employees so that they can use taxpayer discontent with government budget problems to take away negotiated benefits and bargaining rights from our public sector brothers and sisters,” Estrada added.

Public employees appreciate their secure jobs, but they are actually underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts when controlling for education and experience. This is largely because government employment normally requires employees to have higher education degrees than private employment and public employees stay in their jobs longer. That’s why multiple apples-to-apples compensation comparisons between public and private sector workers show that public employees are actually underpaid by 3 percent to 10 percent and that their pensions average about $19,000.

The UAW is working with other unions and progressive organizations to counter the anti-union misinformation campaign and defeat the dangerous legislative push against labor. The Public Sector, Health Care and Higher Education Departments are particularly engaged in the fight to protect the hard-won rights secured by public sector members through targeted outreach, education and member mobilization to respond to legislative and media attacks. The departments are also providing bargaining assistance to preserve and enhance the union’s strong voice on behalf of its members, while working with government employers to address valid financial pressures.

“For many years, our public sector members have sacrificed to help government address budget shortfalls by taking furlough days and double-digit pay cuts,” Estrada said. “We should look to solutions that help put government budgets in check without further fueling an unsupported attack against these dedicated workers who give everything they’ve got to make our states and communities better places to live and work.”

UAW President Bob King has been outspoken in his support for public sector workers, calling on broad UAW and public support for public sector workers.

King recently said: ”We are asking all UAW members, active and retired, and all citizens who appreciate the importance of a strong middle class to maintaining a strong democracy to support public sector workers in their struggle to maintain a decent middle class standard of living. We all know that the attacks on public sector workers are really attacks meant to weaken the rights and standards of living of all workers. The Republicans leading these attacks are not satisfied with the extreme wealth of the richest in this country. They want to shift even more money from workers and their families to the wealthiest in this country. They have no shame.”

Source: UAW Public Sector, Health Care and Higher Education Departments, directed by Vice President Cindy Estrada.


UAW members respond to the attacks

“We pay public employees decent wages and good benefits so we have good people taking care of our public. If we don’t have good people working for the county or working in the public schools as teachers, I don’t know where it will take us. It’s a huge concern. I’m afraid the rest of the nonunion world doesn’t realize how important it is to have good-paying jobs for your county and state. Those of our private-sector members who don’t understand this don’t understand that this is just a race to the bottom.”

Pat Vesser
UAW Local 1102 president
Paper Converting Machine Co., Green Bay, Wis.

“It is ironic that during a time when the demands for public services are at an all time high, we are being attacked by Republican legislators for our modest benefits and wages. The race to the bottom is on as Republican legislators try to demonize the public worker and send us all into low-wage jobs. The Republican agenda appears to be to attack the public workers that provide essential services and continue to give support to those who got us into this economic mess.”

Ed Mitchell
UAW Local 6000 president
State of Michigan

“The legislation in Michigan to take away our bargaining rights would devastate our members because the union is the only avenue that they have to get their problems resolved. It will be an attack on low-income families, because most of the child care providers are among the working poor. If they don’t have help getting what they’re due, they’ll be worse off than before. A lot of people are going to be devastated and it’s not fair for the kids. Most people aren’t doing child care for the money. They’re doing it because they love kids.”

Amy Woodard
UAW Local 7127 president
Child Care Providers Together Michigan (CCPTM)

“I’m a caseworker for Lorain County (Ohio) Job and Family Services. In the 11 years I’ve been working in the public sector, I have never heard such anti-union rhetoric directed at the public sector as I am now. Gov. Kasich seems to want to destroy the unions that are made up of the people who support families and children. I work in welfare and I’m trying to help the families who have lost their jobs. My dad was a UAW member and was on strike for three years at one time, so I’ve always supported the UAW because of what it meant for my family and I’ve always supported all unions. At my place of employment, we are facing pay freezes and decreased paid lunch and no breaks, as our job increases in volume and decreases in employees. Gov. Kasich wants us to have no right to strike, but that would be a huge blow to the gains we’ve made.”

Anna Adkins
UAW Local 2192 member
Lorain County (Ohio) Job and Family Service