States Aim to Strangle Unions by Their Blue Collars

Facing budget crises, some state governors want to freeze public union pay--and weaken their political power in the long run

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Time to party like it's 1981. States are running out of money, so where do they turn to save some cash? Union busting! "State officials from both parties are wrestling with ways to curb the salaries and pensions of government employees," The New York Times' Steven Greenhouse reports, because those expenses take up a pretty big chunk of state budgets. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, will likely call for freezing state worker salaries for one year. And California Gov. Jerry Brown says he'll review government workers' benefits. But Republican governors want to go further to weaken unions in the long term.

GOP lawmakers in ten states intend to introduce bills that would make union dues optional, instead of mandatory, for members. Wisconsin's governor wants to bar state workers from forming unions altogether. Ohio's governor is launching the biggest assault on unions, Greenhouse reports,

seeking to outlaw strikes by school teachers, prevent child care and home care workers from unionizing, and end a rule that mandates nonunion construction workers on public contracts be paid union-scale wages. State officials say that unions have disproportionate power, which they want to shift back to taxpayers. But unions say lawmakers care less about the budget than about limiting union power. Here's a sample of the online portion of the debate:

  • A Most Excellent Scapegoat!  "High unemployment, sluggish growth...who's to blame?" asks Gawker's Hamilton Nolan. "The unions, of course. The unions are the enemies of the working man. The working class must destroy unions for their own good. Unions are the perfect scapegoat: an organization that benefits a relatively small number of actual members, which a mass of disgruntled outsiders can be easily convinced to blame for their own problems." Nolan continues, "blaming unions for unemployment is a brilliant stroke of political jujitsu, because it appeals to the very people that would naturally be allies of organized labor: the working class. ... Public employees have jobs like everyone else. ... No one is claiming that unions are perfect; but if we're going to start destroying imperfect things, the statehouse would be a more beneficial place to start than the union hall."
  • This Is the Dawn of a New Class War, The Wall Street Journal's William McGurn argues--one between government worker unions and private sector unions. It seems like they should be best pals, McGurn says, but there's an increasing contrast between them. Private sector union workers "increasingly pay for more of their own health care, and they have defined contribution pension plans such as 401(k)s." That means they need their companies to succeed. By contrast, public sector unions use their clout to get politicians elected, and as payback, "these unions are rewarded with contracts whose pension and health-care provisions now threaten many municipalities and states with bankruptcy. In response to the crisis, government unions demand more and higher taxes. Which of course makes people who have money less inclined to look to those states to make the investments that create jobs for, say, iron workers, electricians and construction workers."
  • Wait a Second, Nolan continues in response to McGrun. He's not convinced by this renewed claim of union culpability:
So: municipalities and states that entered into pension and benefit agreements with their employees, and then, through horrifically poor financial planning combined with the overall collapse of the global economy due to Wall Street's insatiable appetite for handing out subprime loans, found themselves unable to honor those agreements. This means that public sector unions themselves--not the elected officials who fucked up the states' finances--are bad. Therefore, private sector union workers who are natural allies of public sector unions should turn against them, until they are destroyed. This will benefit you, common working man. We promise!
  • This Is Getting Old, The Indypendent's Mark Brenner writes. "Dumping on public sector workers is so 'common sense' these days that even a few fellow unionists are piling on," Brenner writes, noting that the head of one New York building trade has signed on to a group working to limit public sector union pay. It's a sign of the spread of the meme that "the deficit is the greatest threat the country faces," and public unions are "taking over government and running it into the ground with supposedly outsized pay and benefit packages. ... Today plenty of public sector unions are hiding from the resentment the right is whipping up. But if the past 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that keeping your head down doesn’t stop the bleeding."
  • Their Benefits Are Good Enough; It's Time to Sacrifice, Adam Vogt argues at Crosscut.
I am not saying that unions have no place in our society. ... But government employees have it pretty good these days: high wages, extensive benefits, the near-impossibility of being fired, to name just a few pluses they enjoy. ...  With more news coming out each day about devastating budget challenges at the federal, state and local level, it’s time for public employees and their union benefactors to make some concessions. What many people don’t yet realize is that these budget troubles were brought on in large part through repeated giveaways to public employees... Whether it’s chipping in more for health care costs or forgoing a few workdays per year, sacrifice is the only way out of this fiscal mess. For the sake of our economic future, public employees' unions need to adapt to this reality.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.