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Union-busting is about permanent Republican majority, not balanced budgets

by: Ted Frier

Mon Mar 14, 2011 at 12:07:18 PM CDT

| More

"This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history."

So said a giddy Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, to the man he thought was David Koch, the gas and chemical magnate whose ability to pollute our air and keep us addicted to fossil fuels would be greatly enhanced if public sector unions were eliminated as an organized political force.

And now that Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans have stripped unions of their bargaining rights in a brutal display of disregard for democracy and fair play, government workers in the Badger State can now quite literally call themselves public "servants."

In order to shift the balance of power from middle-class workers toward plutocrats like Charles and David Koch, Walker and Wisconsin Republicans disguised audacity as austerity when they launched their concerted attack against Wisconsin's public sector unions, a fight that was always much more about power than budgets according to any fair-minded review of the record.

When the original justification for passing the union-busting bill as an emergency fiscal measure got in the way of Republican ambitions to subordinate middle-class needs to corporate and business interests, Republicans shamelessly jettisoned their integrity and principles by passing a bill which they now hypocritically claim has no fiscal impact after all.

Likewise, union-busting Republicans must have been momentarily stunned when the public overwhelmingly sided with the unions once the GOP's real intentions were known. But that barely slowed Republicans from doing as they were told by their corporate bosses as they took apart police and fire unions whose public support exceeded 70%, all the while falsely claiming a popular mandate to slash the budget and anyone who stood in the way.

It's true that no one likes to pay taxes, even as polls consistently show that the majority of voters support those programs that these hated taxes make possible. It's also true that people resent getting pushed around by those who have more power than they do, which helps explain why working-class folks are often antagonistic towards those who are members of working-class unions.

And it's in the spaces within these contradictions that conservatives seem to thrive, for if there is one talent conservatives have acquired better than all others since they began their campaign to transform America's middle-class democracy into one more congenial to upper-class interests, it's conservative's ability to frame issues in narrow ways that always favor their interests.

That is how America's more than two hundred year-old conflict between capital and labor, between democracy and free market capitalism, gets translated by conservatives into a two-dimensional morality play in which virtuous producers struggle to guard the fruits of their labor from slothful parasites bent on stealing from them using rapacious government as an accomplice in their larceny.

And this cartoonish drivel is gobbled up by millions of gullible Americans who now think it's perfectly okay to run the government by dipping into the retirement accounts of humble Americans while handing out enormous tax giveaways to America's high and mighty.

Consider also:

* While wages at the top have soared over the past 30 years as those in the middle and below have stagnated;

* While most productivity gains have been grabbed by those at the top;

* While unions have been broken and now represent just 7% of workers in the private sector;

* While manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas in order that lost American wages could be given to CEOs and stockholders;

* While underfunded 401Ks replace defined benefit retirement plans;

* While 40 million Americans go without health care;

* While America struggles with 9% unemployment;

* While banks get to recapitalize lost earnings from a collapse of their own doing with low interest taxpayer loans;

While all of this is going on, Republicans now have the gall to frame the battle in Wisconsin as one in which arrogant union bosses grabbing gold-plated benefits for their members are pitted against unemployed taxpayers whose own prospects in life have been greatly diminished thanks to the very same constituents on whose behalf Republicans are waging this furious war against unions.

Every state is struggling to make ends meet as they are caught between the rock of a budget-shrinking recession and the hard place of anti-government hysteria that will continue to make raising new revenues virtually impossible until Democrats find their voice - and their guts -- to make a compelling case about why this community needs to stand together and why democratic government is the best means for leading the effort.

These fiscal issues are real and each state must approach them prudently and responsibly. But to see the campaign Republicans are waging against public sector unions as being exclusively, or even primarily, about fiscal prudence is to overlook the real shift in power that is going on.

Karl Rove can almost smell his permanent Republican governing majority as he and other Republicans pull out all the stops to portray Governor Walker's power grab as nothing more than putting overpaid unions in their places on behalf of beleaguered and overburdened taxpayers.

But this is not about balancing Wisconsin's budget. It's about national priorities, a truth that becomes glaringly apparent when you do a side-by-side comparison showing the kind of country Republicans would like this one to be.

If Republicans get their way, America will cut $11.2 billion for early childhood programs so we can preserve $11.5 billion in tax cuts for millionaire estate planning.

We'd cut $8.9 billion for low-income housing so we can maintain an $8.9 billion mortgage interest deduction for people rich enough to afford a second vacation home.

If Republicans win, America will slash $7.6 billion for supplemental nutrition under the WIC program and cut $4.6 billion for teacher afterschool training while spending $5.2 billion to remove the limit on itemized deductions for high-income earners.

We'd cut $4.1 billion in job training for the unemployed so we can give oil companies $4.1 billion in tax breaks for off-shore drilling.

And, if Republicans are successful, we'd cut $2.5 billion in low-income energy assistance so that the oil industry can, again, write off an additional $2.5 billion for drilling.

This is the real balance sheet of union-busting efforts in Wisconsin, not the comparative nickels and dimes the state can save by taking away bargaining rights - I mean, if breaking the unions really was about saving money, which Republicans now admit it isn't.

But the only way to make sense of this grossly one-sided comparison of priorities is by looking at the Republicans as nothing more than lobbyists for wealthy interests, whatever those interests happen to be and however much advancing them might conflict with the Republican's own stated positions and principles.

That is the only way to explain how Republicans can so angrily demand that steps be taken to reduce the deficit while blowing a $700 billion hole in the nation's debt with their tax cuts for the rich. It's the only way to make sense of Republicans who are willing to let the government shut down or default on its debt unless budget cuts are made, while at the same time refusing to trim defense contracts or subsidies for Big Oil.

Smashing the unions might look like a triumph for emancipating public policy from special interests, says Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, until you understand that public unions carry weight far beyond narrow questions of membership benefits and compensation. For at the end of the day, unions are a force for middle-class economic interests generally.

"In the real world," says Chait, "politics is dominated by the influence of the rich and the business lobby, with unions providing a small countervailing force. Breaking up the public sector unions would have many results, but one of those surely would be to increase the relative power of the business lobby even more."

The radical free market promoter Joseph Schumpeter, who famously described the dynamics of capitalism as one of "creative destruction," said that business corporations under capitalism do not so much compete within markets as they compete for markets, and the profits they can gain by monopolizing those markets, however temporarily.

That same monopolizing spirit now dominates the Republican Party when it comes to politics. The Republican Party, as professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson among others have argued persuasively, is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of America's ever-strengthening corporate and financial oligarchy.

That's been true since the early 1970s when business made the fateful decision that Great Society-like liberalism had gone too far and that Corporate America now needed to take matters into its own hands and -- standing shoulder-to-shoulder in both the Public Square and in the smoke-filled back rooms of politics -- make sure America was run on sound business principles: a nation of big business, by big business and for big business.

And a key objective of this newly-motivated business coalition was always the evisceration of labor as an organized opposition. Thus, say Hacker and Pierson, from 1960 until 1980 there was a four-fold increase in charges of unfair labor practices filed with an increasingly enfeebled National Labor Relations Board. There was a three-fold rise in charges of unlawful termination. There was a five-fold increase in the number of workers who were awarded back pay or granted reinstatement orders by the courts.

But this didn't stop the relentless anti-union efforts. Businesses simply paid their fines and moved on, calculating that the penalties they had to occasionally pay for breaking labor laws was cheaper than letting unions organize in the first place.

Conservatives credit Ronald Reagan (as always) for opening up this new spring offensive against organized labor when he fired the PATCO air traffic controllers for their wildcat strike in 1981. But the widening gap in power between labor and business first became apparent during the Carter administration, argue Hacker and Pierson, when labor suffered a series of devastating legislative setbacks despite having Democratic control of both Congress and the White House.

After failing to win passage of a long-shot effort to gain "common situs" picketing rights that would have allowed unions to combine their strength in shows of solidarity against single employers, American labor sustained a much deeper wound in 1978 when a reform bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize went down to defeat in the face of fierce and unprecedented business lobbying, which was able to outspend labor 3-1 and flood Congress with more than eight million pieces of mail.

UAW leader Douglas Fraser was so disgusted by the rout and the unequal fight Democrats managed to put up that he resigned from President Carter's Labor-Management group, writing a passionate parting shot explaining why.

"I believe leaders of the business community have chosen to wage a one-sided class war against working people and even many in the middle-class of our society," wrote a disconsolate Fraser. "The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during the past period of growth and progress."

Fraser called business efforts to kill the reform bill "the most vicious, unfair attack upon the labor movement in more than 30 years."  At virtually every level, he said, there was "a demand by business for docile government and unrestrained corporate individualism. Where industry once yearned for subservient unions it now wants no unions at all."

At the same time that big business was enlisting government to help destroy the union movement, Corporate America sought to further widen inequities in America "by advocating for a capital gains tax rollback that will bring them a huge bonanza," the union leader said.

For all these reasons, Fraser said he saw no point in sitting down at the same table with big business to philosophize pointlessly "about the future of the country and the world" while American industry "tries to destroy us and ruin the lives of the people I represent."

And just as Fraser foretold, not long after driving a stake into the ability of labor to organize, a Democratic Congress passed, and a Democratic president signed, a tax bill whose centerpiece was a reduction of the top rate of capital gains from 48% to 28%, write Hacker and Pierson.

This was followed just a few years later by even bigger gains for businesses and corporations once Ronald Reagan became president.

"The hogs were really feeding," wrote Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, at the ugly spectacle of special interests now pigging out at the public trough.

This is the nature of oligarchy. It seeks the very same monopoly in politics that it is sometimes able to achieve in the marketplace.  And it's not too particular about the tactics, falsehoods or hypocrisies it uses to get it.

There's a reason thinkers like James Madison put so much emphasis on a balance of power and of "factions" when they contemplated the fragility of democratic republics and the forces which bring them down. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," Madison said in the end, for democracy can exist on no other basis.

Yet, thanks to pliant and compliant Republicans, and inept and cowardly Democrats, there is now an American oligarchy out there which is growing in power and influence, determined to make sure its ambition is the only one that counts.

Ted Frier :: Union-busting is about permanent Republican majority, not balanced budgets
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