Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Union Busting: another canary in the coal mine(s) of the globe

By Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star, February 23, 2011
What’s going on in Wisconsin should be of real interest to Ontarians. It is an extraordinary story of how a state renowned for its moderate — even leftish — views has decided to solve its fiscal problems by destroying public sector unions.

Like Ontario, Wisconsin has traditionally been home to a conservative kind of progressivism. It pioneered political party reform and workers’ compensation legislation. ...
But like the rest of North America, Wisconsin suffered from the recession and subsequent slowdown. Its unemployment rate rose; its tax revenues declined. A small state (its population is 5.6 million), its biennial deficit is expected to rise to $3.6 billion by 2011-13.
In relative terms, that’s not extreme (Ontario, with a population of 13 million, projects a current annual deficit of $18.7 billion). But it was enough to cause the state’s voters to elect hard-line Republican Scott Walker as governor last fall.
Campaigning on a platform of smaller government, Walker promised both $2 billion in tax cuts and a balanced budget. Aided by a Republican-dominated legislature, he has delivered tax cuts — which, of course, promise to increase future deficits. How then to balance the budget?
One part of the governor’s solution will be familiar to those who watch Ontario politics. Like Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak, Walker has pledged to end subsidies to green energy projects.
But his real focus is on teachers and others who make up the state’s 175,000-person unionized workforce.
Walker wants state workers to pay a higher share of their pension and benefit costs. They’ve agreed.
Beyond that, however, he wants to effectively gut their unions. Under proposed legislation affecting all state employees — with the significant exception of firefighters and police — hard-won collective bargaining rights would be scaled back to 19th-century levels.
First, workers would be forbidden from negotiating anything other than wages. Issues such as pensions, benefits, working conditions and even holidays would be out of bounds.

Second, wages could rise no more than the cost of living. So even where they could negotiate, unions would have little to talk about.
Third, all contracts would be limited to one year. Bargaining units would require annual certification votes and the payment of dues would become voluntary — moves designed to make the very existence of unions more difficult.
And this from the editorial page of the New York Times, February 23, 2011
Like a wind-whipped brush fire, the mass union protests that began in Madison, Wis., last week have spread to the capitals of Ohio and Indiana where Republican lawmakers also are trying to cripple the bargaining power of unions — and ultimately realize a cherished partisan dream of eradicating them. In each case, Republican talk of balancing budgets is cover for the real purpose of gutting the political force of middle-class state workers, who are steady supporters of Democrats and pose a threat to a growing conservative agenda.
And this by Eric Lipton, New York Times, February 21, 2011
Among the thousands of demonstrators who jammed the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds this weekend was a well-financed advocate from Washington who was there to voice praise for cutting state spending by slashing union benefits and bargaining rights.

 The visitor, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, told a large group of counterprotesters who had gathered Saturday at one edge of what otherwise was a mostly union crowd that the cuts were not only necessary, but they also represented the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits.
“We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation,” he said.
What Mr. Phillips did not mention was that his Virginia-based nonprofit group, whose budget surged to $40 million in 2010 from $7 million three years ago, was created and financed in part by the secretive billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
State records also show that Koch Industries, their energy and consumer products conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., was one of the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican who has championed the proposed cuts.
In the U.S. there already has been a significant drop in the percentage of workers who belong to unions. From a high of 30+% in the 1970's, that number has dropped to a current low of 7%, inspite of the fact that it was the union movement that essentially drove the creation of the middle class in that country.
Furthermore, to directly attack this fundamental right to collective bargaining one of the main causes of the budget deficit is simply opportunism, and misdirected at that. And there are several reasons for that.
First, the Wall Street debacle, causing a significant drop in tax revenues after the fall in house prices and the deluge of mortgage defaults, because of predatory lending practices, is a more significant contributor to the red ink than public sector union demands. Second, the union contracts pay public service workers, on average, about 5% less than their counterparts in the private sector, who are working without union contracts, including both wages and benefits. Third, the public sector workers provide, in many cases, essential services, similar to the military, at costs less than they would be, in most cases, if those responisibilites were turned over to the private sector, as has been done in Afghanistan where there are more private contractors than military personnel fighting the Taliban.
What is happening across the U.S. is that a wave of conservative revenge is sweeping across the country, focussing on the public services, for example, as provided by teachers, firefighters, police and environmental protection...all of them considered necessary in any civil society. Another of the targets of this movement is the recently passed Health Reform Act which provides health coverage for some 30 million Americans not now covered, while blocking insurance companies from refusing coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, among other new benefits, like permitting children to stay on their parents' coverage until age 26.
Union busting, one of the hallmarks of Margaret Thatcher's government in Great Britain, is a favourite enemy and bogeyman of the corporate elite, just as, conversely, temporary jobs with no benefits are a corporate elite dream, thereby effectively removing any responsibility for workers from the corporate surge for profits.
What is effectively happening in this and several other moves, is the corporate take-over of the American state, in the right-wing's mistaken belief that when the corporations are in control of the governments, either by directly purchasing the politicians or by indirectly manipulating them through expensive lobbyists, then everyone will be reduced to the same kind of worker dependency on their corporate "overlords" where there is no assurance of employment, and no benefits except those purchased by the individual, and all public services will be provided by the private sector.
And, while there are still players associations in the professional sports leagues where the players while making large salaries and bonuses for their short careers, there will be no voice protecting the average workers from the whims of their employers. This is not anyway to generate confidence in a recovery program to which most corporate leaders are not entirely committed, except insofar as their company profits and their shareholder dividends and their CEO bonusus are concerned.
Workers everywhere, including those in sweat shops in the third world, including China, need to use their limited access to the internet, claim their collective voices and take back their legitimate and, in the long run, necessary worker protections in order to mitigate against more legitimate unrest and dislocation stemming from an economic form of repression to which the corporate agenda is increasinly committed everywhere.
Just another compelling reason for the revival, renewal and political empowerment of the International Labour Organization in all countries.

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