Seize The Day?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

Today, the U.S. is firmly lodged in the second tier of nations when it comes to protecting the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively. As a recent Freedom House report, The Global State of Worker Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, puts it, the United States “features an overall political environment that is distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest."

In this context, the uprising of public service workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere seems remarkably heroic. They have put everything on the line, in a time and place and country where one might expect little or no sympathy from authorities or even ordinary citizens.

And yet, surprisingly, their protests are resonating with lots of people, if a recent New York Times/CBS poll is to be believed. A majority of Americans appear to be tilting toward support of the Wisconsin workers, including a good number of Republicans. But as for unions generally, the news is not so good. A recent Pew Research Center poll, taken while the protests were gearing up, found that about 45% of Americans view unions favorably, down from 58% in 2007. The same poll notes significant numbers of Americans hold the view that unions hurt business and increase the offshoring of U.S. jobs. At the same time, most Americans think unions are good for people. There was no difference in overall attitudes toward private sector or public sector unions.

Unions: good for people, but bad for business? In their minds at least, Americans seem to be stuck on the proverbial horns of a major dilemma: They like the wages, benefits and increased security that come with collective bargaining – as unions put it, a “voice at work” – but are convinced that these things are simply out of their reach due to the nature of the free-market system.

This notion represents a huge challenge for unions, which have had little success in battling the dominant anti-union narrative. How to get Americans to view unions as democratic organizations that bring added value and increased productivity to the workplace - and a higher quality to our democracy? There’s more than a little data to support the argument that unions are, in fact, “productivity increasers” – which act to strengthen both the economy and the polity. There’s also a lot of evidence that falling union membership is linked to the nation’s increasing income inequality, which also acts as a drag on long-term economic health. And some argue that the onslaught against public service unions is purely ideological and that Scott Walker’s actions constitute a simple political power grab – public sector unions tend to support Democrats; hurt them and you eviscerate the opposition.

As institutions go, unions are far from perfect. They may be doing too little to court younger workers, and they should probably do much more to expand and update their historic role in imparting and policing workplace skills. They sometimes overreach in bargaining. But unions don’t bargain with themselves. Also I have not seen a study that measures the economic damage of union miscues, but it is hard to imagine that they even approach the level of the damage inflicted on the U.S. by the misdeeds of its business and financial sectors, or the miscalculations of policymakers, politicians and technocrats over the past several decades. A little balance is called for in this calculus.

There is some solid data and good arguments for the union position in the Wisconsin fight and in the private sector. And U.S. history certainly supports the argument that this is as much or more a fight about the balance of power in our democracy. American voters can change the narrative in the blink of an eye. They are in a mood to listen. Unions should seize the day.