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June 10, 2005

Why We Need Unions, Part Deux

(Reprinted From Confined Space)
Harold Meyerson has a column in the Washington Post today describing how public employees have managed to resist Republican attempts to repeal the New Deal, as well as the Wal-Martization of the American workforce:
Policemen, firefighters, teachers, hospital nurses -- they still belong to the one part of the U.S. economy where the New Deal hasn't been repealed. Fully 90 percent of them have defined-benefit pensions as of old. In the private sector, just 60 percent of employees have retirement plans, and a scant 24 percent still cling to defined-benefit plans. Fully 86 percent of public employees are covered by on-the-job health insurance; in the private sector, the rate has fallen to 66 percent.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, public employees make on average $49,275 a year. A sub-princely sum, that, but better than the $34,461 that is the average annual income of private-sector workers.
What's the secret to their success? Unions, of course:
While 37 percent of public-sector workers are unionized, just 8 percent of private-sector workers are. Through their power at the ballot box, public employees have maintained the ability to bargain with their employers, who are either elected officials or their appointees. For all intents and purposes, their private-sector counterparts have lost the power to bargain collectively.
The problem is that Republican politicians who don't generally earn the support of public employee unions are out to get them. It's not too hard to understand why public employee unions are generally hostile to Republicans, especially considering the war against public employees in Missouri and Indiana.
Now,  California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, having failed in his recent attempt to roll back public employees' pensions, as well as losing battles against nurse patient ratios and funding for schools is about to get on the bandwagon supporting a initiative that would curtail the ability of public-sector unions to fund political campaigns. He's hoping that the growing numbers of Californians who don't have the pensions, health care and salaries enjoyed by public employees will grow to resent the privileges that "public servants" are enjoying on their tax dollars.

Meyerson points out that even if the Governator loses this battle,
the problems faced by public-sector workers as the private sector grows steadily meaner aren't going away, whatever the outcome of the immediate battles in California. When public-sector workers were first joining unions in the '60s, they were largely playing catch-up with private-sector employees. But as Wal-Mart has supplanted General Motors as America's largest private employer (and GM announced a cutback of 25,000 more workers Tuesday), it's the teachers and their public-sector cohorts who have emerged as the relatively more advantaged -- and politically exposed.

From the period of the three decades after World War II, when the long boom in the American economy was felt in every class and quadrant, we have devolved into a nation of separate economies -- increasingly insecure private-sector workers, a public sector where the guarantees of the New Deal order still pertain and a stratum of mega-rich whose investment income is taxed at lower rates than the incomes of those who work for a living. If we can't create more security in the private sector (and universal health insurance would be a good start), the modest security of a work life in the public sector will surely be eroded, too.
In other words, just as "globalization" and Wal-Mart are dragging down the standards and benefits once enjoyed by private sector workers, the increasingly non-unionized private sector is threatening to drag down the well-unionized public sector to their level.
And as far as I can tell, there's one and only one way to "create more security in the private sector" and avoid the race to the bottom: Organize the private sector.

Posted by Jordan Barab at June 10, 2005 12:17 AM