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 Day 19

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The Three-Pronged Attack on Organized Labor

Unions and the Damage (Not) Done


The on-going attack on America’s labor unions comes in three basic forms: accusing unions of doing economic damage, accusing unions of being corrupt, and blaming public sector unions for gouging American taxpayers by forcing us to underwrite exorbitant pensions. While the first two are almost exclusively the product of Karl Rove-like smear campaigns, the third, though wildly exaggerated, has some basis in fact.

Let’s do the third one first. Although it’s true that we taxpayers do, in fact, pay for the wages and benefits of public sector workers, this was never a “problem” until the number of private sector workers who had had their wages and benefits hollowed-out by their employers reached a critical mass. Before then, no one really thought or cared much about it.

It was only when private sector workers—already whipped into a froth by anti-union propaganda—realized their crappy wages, low pensions, and poor working conditions were inferior to those of public sector workers that it became a “problem.” That and when virtually every state government in the country found itself on the verge of bankruptcy due to bad investments, and went looking for scapegoats.

This antipathy toward the private sector is relatively new. Go back to your high school days and recall when your buddy, Fred, informed his classmates that he hoped to land a job with the DMV. Didn’t most of us think he was “settling for less”? Didn’t we think that by taking a DMV job Fred was turning his back on the potential riches, challenges and glamour that came only with a private sector job—a job where hard work and talent would take you as far as you wanted to go?

Nobody said, “Hey, wait a minute, Fred. What are you trying to pull? If you get a job with the DMV, that means we taxpayers will be underwriting your wages and benefits, and that when it comes time for you to retire, after putting in your 30 or 40 soul-crushing years, it will be our tax dollars that pay for your pension. I’m sorry, dude, but that arrangement is unacceptable.”

But now we’re all supposed to hate the public sector. Of course, the media fan the flames by showcasing the most bizarre and extreme examples of greed—of cops who, on the taxpayers’ dime, go out on questionable medical pensions and then land well-paying jobs as security consultants, as if those sensational cases were typical. Meanwhile, no one cares that CEO compensation in the U.S. continues to dwarf that of other countries, suggesting that we reserve our contempt for the working class, not the rich.

As for those other two prongs—charges of economic damage and accusations of corruption—they are so absurd as to barely merit a response. We need to be clear: The claim that companies leave the U.S. to avoid paying union wages is false. It’s an outright lie disseminated by free market fundamentalists, and anyone who believes it is a dupe.

The reason companies leave is to avoid paying an American wage. A factory might relocate from Ohio to Mississippi to avoid paying union scale, but it doesn’t move to Bangladesh to do so. The federal minimum is $7.25 per hour, more than triple what people make in Third World countries. Unpatriotic companies leave the U.S. for one reason only: to avoid paying an American wage. It’s got nothing to do with unions.

As for “corruption,” that tired stereotype belongs right up there with “Scotsmen are frugal,” and “Southerners are backward.” I once wrote an article identifying myself as a “former union president.” Without permission, the editor changed it to “union boss,” which was wrong of him because the term was a pejorative. You’re not a mob “president”; you’re a mob “boss.” I was so upset, I had one of my henchmen break the editor’s legs (that’s a joke).

David Macaray is a labor columnist and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).