Unions Under Attack

I don’t understand the problem people have with unions.  Unions have been around for years and have helped reform labor laws that most of us benefit from in some way. However, I can understand why big business would want to destroy unions.  It’s really very simple, profit.  And it’s the same story over and over – in the words of Noam Chomsky,  “profit over people”.  And I’m not just talking a little profit, I’m talking obscene profits.  Look no further than Walmart, a wildly successful garganguan box retailer.  It has a reputation for shoddy employment practices accentuated by low wages, unaffordable health insurance and gender discrimination lawsuits.  And there’s the outsourcing.  Certainly not unique to Walmart, but happening nonetheless.  And yes, Walmart is expanding,  and creating jobs, but also driving out competition from small business.  And what good is a full-time job if the pay is low and the benefits unaffordable?  If Walmart allowed unions, its workers would have better working conditions, there’d be fewer disputes in the long run and perhaps its workers would be healthier, more productive and loyal.  Sounds like good business to me.

I realize that the Wisconsin dispute is about public sector unions, and not the private sector, so let me say this – contrary to Republican rhetoric, unions are not responsible for the fiscal crisis states now face.  The economy is to blame.  The near collapse of the financial markets due to poor regulatory oversight is not the fault of labor.   States should endeavor to find new revenues.  Gaming – riverboat gambling anyone?, closing corporate tax loopholes, and raising income taxes.  It doesn’t always have to be cut, cut, cut.  And who to cut?  Your child’s teacher?  Come on.  If you think teaching is easy or unimportant, try it for a year.  Why do you think the turnover rate among new teachers is so high?  And despite what you may be thinking, the starting salary for a teacher is abysmal in most states, though higher in New England where the cost of living is significantly higher.  But if you are a teacher, and you commit to professional development and obtain a master’s degree, advanced certifications, you are financially rewarded thanks to union contracts.  But of course this is no different than the private sector where starting salaries are quite a bit higher, where education and credentials also matter.

On the national scene, Republicans are busy with a coordinated strategy of dividing the middle class along economic and social lines.  They blame unions for the economy hoping to gain support from socially conservative blue dog type democrats, independents, tea partiers and libertarians.  But let’s not forget the Republicans pledge to be a job creating machine.  I guess that machine is broken down and in the union shop for major repairs.

The State of the Divided Union

President Obama’s first standing ovation during the SOU address came when he said, referring to the resiliency of our nation during hard times,  “It’s because of this spirit…that I’ve never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight.  Despite our hardships, our union is strong.”  But is it strong?  What union was he referring too?  He mentioned the Battle of Bull Run during the American Civil war.  There was certainly a strong resolve on the part of President Lincoln to preserve the union.  Or was he talking about labor unions?  It’s hard to argue that unions are strong when they represent only 12.3% of the workforce or approximately 15 million workers.  In fact, union membership is on the decline.  In 1983, there were over 17 million union workers – over 20% of the workforce.   So what union was he talking about in his speech? Not the union of the people either.  I can’t remember a time when the people of this country were more divided.  I think his point was that the people don’t want to be divided.  That voters are fed up with partisan politics.  He tried to elevate himself above the gridlock that is Washington, but his administration is part of the problem.

Obama supporters expected him to deliver on some of his 2008 campaign promises on domestic issues in his first year, promises on  health care and immigration reform and job creation.   Ambitious as the promises were, the fact that health care reform did not come, that he came close but could not close the deal speaks to a failed approach, one in which he tried to placate the blue dogs and republicans by giving up on the public option.  As to jobs, the stimulus package hasn’t created as many as expected, partly because the stimulus wasn’t big enough.  And without Ted Kennedy, immigration reform may be nothing more than a hollow promise.

So what is Obama to do to right the ship? First, he wants bipartisan governance, but the republicans don’t want the democrats to get credit for anything.  They seem determined to say no to everything, even their own ideas.   So he should continue to expose this hypocrisy as he did at the meeting with republicans a day after the SOU.  I hope more candid meetings like this continue, but I have a feeling that the republican leadership will put a stop to it.   Second, he needs to stop sounding like a republican or he is going to lose his base of support.  How many times did Obama reference tax cuts in the SOU?  Tax cuts for businesses, for the middle class, for students, for homebuyers, for parents, and even more corporate welfare to encourage investment.  Tax breaks for everyone except the wealthiest, who don’t need them and could, if they chose, game the system by hiding assets or hiring  effective lawyers and accountants to find loopholes.  And then a spending freeze.  Republicans might like the sound of that, but of course will criticize him for not doing it soon enough.  Reducing the deficit should be a national priority, but it should be noted time and time again that Obama inherited the huge deficit.

The State of the Union is this:  We are a divided nation.   We don’t have to always agree on the issues, but there is such a thing as compromise.  Without it, we will continue to be a dysfunctional nation.  Let’s bring back the United in United States of America.