Friday, March 4, 2011

Labor's Biggest Enemy is Jealousy

Labor has had many enemies in my lifetime and has been prematurely declared dead a couple of times. As an organizer in the 1980s I saw a lot of simple injustice. For example, unionized janitors making one dollar above minimum wage would be terminated for a non-union crew willing to work for 25 cents above minimum wage. Or health care workers who wanted to unionized would have a professional union prevention firm run a campaign of psychological intimidation against them.

In my young years with the Service Employees International Union we fought these battles in the streets. We became experts in direct action, civil disobedience, big rallies and big marches. In Los Angeles we won the Century 21 organizing campaign after LA riot police attacked and beat a group of peaceful marchers. It seems the parade permit didn't account for much.

However, the less obvious enemy of Labor was more harmful. One of Ronald Reagan's first moves against unions was to break the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The less obvious enemy here is not President Reagan, but the jealousy of the American public including many union members. Reagan saturated the public with information about the high wages and good benefits of PATCO members. Remarkably, this message appealed to the most base element in people. Many, too many people, including many people from other unions, were jealous of these white collar professionals. The result was that the federal government was able to utilize replacement workers for the air traffic controllers, breaking their strike, with no public outcry, and little solidarity from the rest of Labor.

The next major union to be broken by jealousy was the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the 1980s and 1990s every yahoo from California to Maine had an anecdote about a guy their cousin knew who worked in an auto plant, making big money, and sleeping on the job every day. So, when the automakers begin to break down the UAW through foreign outsourcing, too many people didn't care.

And so it has gone with union after union, and the refrain of the jealous, "I don't get paid that well! I don't have health care or a pension!"

For several decades public employee union workers were ignored by the green eyed monster, jealousy. After all, who wanted to make the sorry wages of a public employee, or heaven help us, do their jobs: teaching, social work, law enforcement, etc.

Public service jobs no longer look so bad.

To explain what changed, let me digress with yet another anecdote. During the George W. Bush Administration the historic wage gap between men and women narrowed. What a surprise! Was Bush a feminist? No. What actually happened was not that the wages of women had risen, rather the wages of men had dropped. Thus the gap between the two narrowed.

Now, getting back to public employees today. Public employees are no more well paid than they ever were. Public employees have benefits, not rich benefits, just benefits. HOWEVER, other American workers had been pushed down so low with bad pay and simply no benefits, that now public employees seem to be living in high cotton.

If public employees and their unions go the way of other union workers. The country will sink even deeper into this recession. We must have spending power back at the main street level and that means decent wages and benefits for public employees who make up a sizable portion of workers in all states. If my dear readers do not believe this, watch what happens to the so called economic recovery after the public sector sheds another 250,000 jobs this year. We are due for yet another economic setback.

Americans must put aside petty jealousy that comes with rampant individualism and instead adopt a sense of community with other workers, their neighbors, the teachers of their children, the cops who keep them safe at night, the people who repair their bridges, who care for their aged parents, who counsel the mentally ill, and who make their water safe to drink.

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