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Crushing Organized Labor

The Rightwing Restructuring of Wisconsin

by MARK WEISBROT

With the latest turn of events in Wisconsin, Republican state senators have circumvented the need for a quorum vote on Scott Walker’s budget bill by leaving out the fiscal clauses and passing the new laws curbing collective bargaining rights for state and public employees. This dubious tactical maneuver strips away the pretense that Walker and his GOP allies have hitherto maintained that the legislative package was necessary to close the state’s budget deficit: Walker’s objective is, as protesters in Madison have argued all along, to break the last vestige of organized labor strength in the U.S. – the power of public-sector workers to organize and negotiate collectively. Stated or not, Walker’s ambition is to complete what Ronald Reagan began 30 years ago.

But the legislative chicanery in Madison’s Capitol smacks of desperation. It may yet prove that the Right in the U.S. has overreached in its attack on public-sector unions, provoking the left/liberal base of the Democratic party, a popular uprising in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and a backlash among the public. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Wisconsin voters disapproving of Gov. Scott Walker by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, with 48 percent saying they "strongly disapprove." But there are also some positive lessons that American progressives and liberals could learn from the Right’s political strategy.

It is not just that these right-wing governors like Scott Walker and John Kasich (Ohio) and other Republican leaders are willing to take risks and fight for what they want. It is also that they fight for structural reforms — reforms that change the political terrain so that it will be more favorable for the next battle and for the "long war" to which they are committed.

Undermining and destroying collective bargaining rights is one of the most important structural reforms that any right-wing government in a developed country can win. And it is not just because, as has been widely noted, unions contribute money to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. It is much deeper than that. Organized labor is relatively weak now, but for more than a century it has been the most important force for positive economic reforms in the United States, from the eight-hour work day, to health insurance and Medicare [PDF], social security, pensions and minimum wages. The labor slogan, "Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend," is a true but vastly understated historical reality in America.

Ronald Reagan understood this very clearly when he fired 12,000 air traffic controllers soon after taking office in 1981 to break their strike and begin a new era of labor suppression in which private sector workers all but lost their rights to organize unions. His agenda was so radical that it scared many conservatives – which was one reason he lost the 1976 Republican nomination. Even after he won the presidency in 1980, much of the business class was not convinced that it was possible to revert to 19th century labor relations – until Reagan did it. Unions were 20 percent of the private sector labor force when Reagan was elected; they are 6.9 percent today.

Crushing organized labor was essential to a number of Reagan’s other historic achievements, including launching the most massive upward redistribution of income and wealth in U.S. history. During the 25 years after he took office, the after-tax real (inflation adjusted) income of the richest one percent would more than triple, while the average American’s income would barely grow at all. But there was so much more that he accomplished in the world of right-wing ideas, foreign policy, tax reform, and elsewhere. Without much of a mandate from the voters, Reagan was nonetheless a president that transformed the world, perhaps more than any single person in the second half of the 20th century. Unfortunately for the world, the changes that he led made most people worse off – and in places like Central America, tens of thousands were killed [PDF] by the dictators, death-squad governments, and "freedom fighters" that he championed.

Contrast the leadership of Reagan and even today’s far less skilled Republicans to their counterparts on the other side. Bill Clinton also fought for structural reforms. His top legislative priority during his first year in office was fighting for NAFTA, which helped to further undermine labor in the United States. By creating the World Trade Organization and implementing welfare reform and financial de-regulation, Clinton continued the right-wing structural changes of the Reagan era – so much that there wasn’t that much left for George W. Bush to do when he took office. Bush tried to go after Social Security, but was defeated. (Clinton had a very similar plan for partial privatization and cuts to Social Security, but backed off under political pressure.)

Now we come to President Obama, who really did have a mandate for change as the majority of the electorate finally rebelled against nearly four decades of right-wing reforms and the pain and anxiety caused by the Great Recession. One structural reform that Obama had promised in his campaign to support was the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have gone a long way toward restoring the collective bargaining rights that Reagan had destroyed. President Obama quickly backed off from this promise.

On health care, Obama also backed off from his pledge to support a public option – which was not so much a structural reform as a possible opening to the structural health care reform that this country needs. Real health care reform would be a vital progressive structural change, not least because it would eliminate the long-term deficit problem in the United States and thereby remove the main pillar of the right-wing conservative/liberal budget agenda.

The list could go on, but my point is not to attack Obama. He is simply representative of Democratic political leadership after nearly four decades of rightward drift helped along by conservative structural reforms. This is something that the pundits get wrong every day: It is not because this is an inherently conservative country that liberal leadership is so weak. Although polling results fluctuate widely with media coverage and the framing of the polling questions, for decades there have been polls showing majorities in favor of real (Medicare for all) health care reform, deep cuts in military spending, an end to U.S. military intervention abroad, increased taxes for the rich, government spending to increase employment (as needed now), and most of the progressive agenda.

The problem is not in the people but in the corridors of power, in the media and the Congress and the many institutions – including liberal ones – that have been moved rightward by strategic efforts over the last 40 years. That is why progressives find themselves fighting defensive battles, as in Wisconsin – while the right, which has neither the presidency nor the Senate – plays offense. It will take some time to get to the point where progressive structural reforms are on the agenda.

But that time will come, and the mass uprisings in support of collective bargaining are a great and inspiring start where new leadership and organizing will emerge – Inshallah (God willing) – as they say in Egypt.

MARK WEISBROT is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.