Usefulness of unions at issue

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Sunday, September 4, 2011
— High unemployment.

Workers losing pay and benefits.

The state of labor this Labor Day is not pretty.

Add to this a bitter battle that started in February when Wisconsin lawmakers moved to cut public employees’ take-home pay while removing most of their union bargaining rights.

Months later, the rhetoric remains hot on both sides.

“It’s discouraging,” said Steve Strieker, one of the workers affected by the new law.

“What’s most disheartening to me is that the American Dream has been totally shifted,” said Strieker, who teaches history at Janesville Parker High School. “It used to be, ‘I want better for my kids. I want the next generation to have more security, better education, better income, better prospects for the future.’ I just don’t see this downsizing and the attack on unions as moving us toward that.”

The rhetoric casts union workers as the destroyers of the economy, Strieker said, while the real culprits are elsewhere.

“We have problems in government, but they are a result of failures in the private sector, failures of runaway health-care costs and failures with finance and investment and Wall Street,” Strieker said.

Across town at Craig High School, English teacher Ed Stried sees demagoguery and fear-mongering used against unions, and he’s not sure why.

“The history of the labor movement is a history of improving the status of the middle class in this country, and it seems particularly ironic for this attack to be against public workers and especially teachers, who are involved directly to help the middle class person or her children achieve more of the American Dream, a better life,” Stried said.

Private-sector union members see the public-sector unions under attack and know that they’re all in danger, said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Some say unions are no longer needed, that they are a relic of the past.

Many things that unions fought for are now part of government laws and regulations, “so those protections are for everybody,” said Rep. Joe Knilans, R-Janesville.

That’s true, said Nikki Mandell, labor historian at UW-Whitewater, who noted that workers in many cases died during protests for decent working conditions.

Mandell doesn’t believe government regulations can replace unions, however, because lawmakers can take away whatever they enact.

Some say unions are to blame for their plight.

“There’s been a lot of discussion of the problems unions created by becoming comfortable in their success and taking on the role of service organizations to their members,” Mandell said. “They really didn’t help members understand that unions are democratic organizations in which everyone has to be engaged.”

Unions are realizing they need to become more responsive to members’ interests and to the public’s needs, Mandell said.

Unions are “re-energized” by the challenge, Neuenfeldt said.

“We have an agenda to promote democracy in the workplace and the community. … Anybody who thinks we’re on the decline, they’re gravely mistaken,” he said.

That doesn’t mean strikes, Neuenfeldt said, but it means mobilizing support for workers, as happened last month when the New Berlin School Board proposed “draconian” work rules, that teachers opposed.

Several hundred showed up at a school board meeting on both sides of the issue, and the teachers lost that battle, according to news reports.

Local Republicans said they voted for change to balance the state’s ailing budget and avoid onerous tax hikes.

“It’s something that needed to be done from a fiscal point of view,” said Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton. “Am I happy about the way things turned out? I think it’s unfortunate that it’s been so divisive. I think the messaging on both sides has really taken over the conversation.”

Knilans noted that most workers are not in unions.

He said the changes will help society by saving taxpayers money.

Before, unions forced local governments into unwise decisions on health-insurance plans, for example, while the same coverage could have been bought more cheaply, Knilans said.

Civil-service rules will work better than union grievance procedures, which were subject to corruption and deal-making, Knilans said, citing his experience working in union and management at General Motors.

The money saved by requiring public workers to pay more for their benefits will go to helping people in programs such as BadgerCare and SeniorCare, Knilans said.

“Change is hard,” Knilans said. “Do I sit back and say that union workers should feel good that collective bargaining privileges were downsized on them, to give them only wages to negotiate? That’s up to that worker (to say).”

Public unions can still bargain for wages, Knilans noted.

Loudenbeck said the divisive talk makes it hard for people to stand on the middle ground in the debate.

Corliss Olson, director of the UW Extension’s School for Workers, agreed with Loudenbeck about the debate. The School for Workers is an adult-education program for working people and labor organizations.

“We’re talking past each other, and if we’re going to keep that up, we’re not going to determine who it is we want to be and who we want to take care of,” Olson said.

For example, people probably can agree that we should not let the elderly live out their days in poverty, Olson said.

“We have to step away from our sound bites and our postures and think more broadly about where we want to go, and that’s hard to think about when you feel like you’re being hit over the head with a stick,” Olson said, referring to union members.

Olson said the country’s wealth has for years been sucked from the middle class and the poor and accumulated with the wealthy.

But isn’t that kind of talk class warfare?

Peace comes with justice, Olson said, and there’s little economic justice today. When the have-nots fight back, they are accused of class warfare.

“Something is dreadfully wrong,” Olson said. “And if we have to use a ‘class’ brush to see it, bring on the brush.”

Olson quoted maverick billionaire Warren Buffett: “There’s class warfare, all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Along the same lines, Neuenfeldt called for “shared sacrifice,” and he said the other side is protecting wealthy and corporate interests while taking money from public schools to fund private schools at the expense of the rest of society.

Government must invest in the workers, make better trade deals and prepare the young to compete in the economy, Neuenfeldt said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 36 percent of public sector workers are unionized, compared to only 6.9 percent in the private sector.

The figures are lopsided not because the public sector has become more unionized but because private-sector unions lost ground over the past 30 years, Mandell said.

When President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union in the early 1980s, private sector employers took it as a sign they could replace striking workers with no repercussions, and they did, Mandell said.

The union movement could have done more for the air traffic controllers, Mandell said, and the result of that inaction over the years has meant lower wages, benefits and worse working conditions for many.

Wisconsin’s situation is similar to the air traffic controllers strike, Mandell said, in that it’s a historic turning point.

“It’s an opening salvo against public-sector workers and their unions,” Mandell said, and it comes in one of the states that historically led the way in workplace safety and public-sector organizing. Wisconsin was the first state to recognize a right to organize for public-sector workers in 1959.

How the situation plays out could mean either good or bad news for workers, Mandell said.

“I can foresee potential here, but I don’t want to predict where it’s going.”

Olson said unions should speak out strongly for all workers and empower workers to speak for themselves.

“If unions are perceived to be only out for themselves, they’re not going to get a whole lot of support in society,” Olson said.

Last updated: 6:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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