Monday, February 21, 2011

Union-baiting: a Republican Party tradition

The political Right got a nasty surprise in both Britain and the United States last week.  In England, vociferous protests and lobbying against utterly pointless as well as costly efforts by a Tory-Liberal government to sell off Britain’s public forests forced a climb-down on the part of David Cameron and his ministers.  And in Wisconsin, public- and private-sector workers alike are having none of Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to balance his budget by assaulting both their livelihoods and political rights.

Walker’s move—to target public workers’ benefits, and their collective bargaining rights—is straight from the hymn-book of the new breed of Republican that has been emerging in recent years.  It demonises anything public, denies that members of society owe each other anything, and puts a balanced budget at the heart of policy—but crucially, pretends that the only way to solve any budget shortfalls is to go after the public sector: top earners, large businesses, major industries and corporations, and other key Republican Party constituents are off-limits from the outset.

Walker, like many of his ideological compatriots in the U.S. congress, evinces a deep contempt and disrespect for people who do essential work in our communities.  Poorly-paid in comparison to their counterparts in many other countries, teachers in the U.S. have relied on strong unions support to make gains.  And their lobbying, through entirely aboveboard and legitimate means is crucified Republicans (Meg Whitman went after CTA with a vengeance during California’s gubernatorial election last fall) who don’t blush defending the underhanded and much less democratic lobbying of corporate and industrial interests that (thanks to the Supreme Court’s rulings on the personification of corporations and the peculiar qualities of money) have a hammerlock on our politics.  It is extraordinary that public sector workers are vilified in this way by lawmakers who are themselves, ostensibly at least, public servants.  If anything, we should be promoting the extension of collective-bargaining rights, so that people across sectors have the right to make the case collectively for their economic needs. 

The story that the right seeks to tell is that working people who combine to argue for decent compensation are creating a budget deficit.  The other side of that story is that legislators who refuse to raise the kind of revenue that is necessary to pay the people who perform essential services in their state are shirking their duties and creating a budget deficit.  Or that lawmakers who are giving away tax breaks to businesses (as in Wisconsin) are generating a budget deficit through their subscription to trickle-down and flow-up economics. 

The attacks on unions are part of a larger story that Republicans are trying to tell about how our country should work.  A Budget, they tell us, is a neutral yet virtuous goal, which emerges from some process of Immaculate Conception involving the principles of Ronald Reagan, the brainpower of Rush Limbaugh, a blessing from the Tea Party Caucus, and possibly some kind of swift intervention on the part of Ron Paul.

But this is, of course, nonsense.  A budget is the product of any number of political decisions, and whether or not, as well as how, it addresses a deficit is the outcome of political decisions.  So when Governor Walker says that it is better that union employees should give up their bargaining rights and pay more into their pension and medical plans than that children should have their healthcare taken from them, he is being transparently dishonest about the process.  A budget is not an either-or, not a choice between a left-wing deficit and right-wing solvency, and doesn’t even have to be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It is, though you’d never guess this listening to the remorseless far-right, perfectly possible to generate a budget which cuts back on deficit spending while maintaining the rights of public employees (and no one aside from the Republican Party is arguing that private-sector workers shouldn’t unionise) and the welfare of a state or nation’s people.  That budget too would come as the result of political choices.  But they would be political choices that put the rights of workers ahead of large employers, and well-being writ large ahead of profit writ narrowly. 

And Walker’s most persistent refrain—“We’re broke!”—is another Republican sleight of hand.  Even a state like California, which is teetering on a financial chasm, isn’t broke.  There is plenty of money in the state to go around.  Plenty of wealth to provide for the well-being of its people.  What is lacking is goodwill on the part of the wealthy, and unwillingness on the part of state government, to ensure that wealth is more equitably distributed.  Blaming unions is simply a tactic to distract attention from the inequality of wealth which characterises our society.

It was refreshing to hear Obama come out in support of protestors in Wisconsin when he condemned Walker’s unhinged assault on labour.  Unhinged because so unnecessary, and so firmly in the grand tradition of scaremongering practised by a party that bases much of its appeal on rhetoric that grew out of a Cold War habit of tarring labour as an arm of Soviet Communism.

The Republican Party has, through a series of ideological contortions that have largely gone unquestioned, made itself the party of “average Americans” while removing the foremost political tool at the disposal of working people to hold the powers that be to account.  Because, far-right scaremongering aside, that is what unionisation is about.  It is about people pooling their interest in order to ensure that their voices are heard. 

Both political parties in the U.S. (albeit with the Republicans out-front in terms of both rhetoric and legislation) have a long history of union-baiting and of placing unconscionable constraints on the ability of people to organise and make demands of their government.

Perhaps most notorious is the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which openly maintained that the rights of employees did not supersede the profits of employers.  It sought to reduce the employee-employer relationship to the connection between an individual and his or her employer, removing collective action, as much as possible, from the equation.  It also made some curious distinctions: between labour and the general welfare, and between labour and the public.  Both ignore what one would assume to be the logical notion that the welfare of the public is nothing if not the welfare of the labour force, and that the general welfare is the welfare of the great majority of our society—namely, that part which labours!

The verbal wedges were accompanied by legislative ones.  By outlawing sympathy strikes, mass picketing, and all unofficial industrial action, Republicans (with the support of many Democrats) effectively disarmed labour, and removed a key platform on which people were able to find commonalities and raise their voices on behalf of their interests.  In the U.S. today, it has become a fashion to think of voting as the beginning and the end of the practise of politics by the public.  But it seems only right that a society will be more democratic if it offers more spheres and openings for people to give voice to desires and to pressure institutions which exercise power (particularly if this is a society that has already been corrupted by an unholy marriage of monied wealth and power). 

The political Right has been unaccountably successful at condemning anyone who questions their logic as ‘radical’ (aided, in some cases, by those on the ahistorical segment of the left who feel the need to fancy themselves militant radicals).  But as that Right gains political power, the contradictions upon which its ideology rests will become increasingly apparent for people to question—as indeed many people are doing in Wisconsin.

The politics of protest have historically been one of the precious few weapons of the weak.  And uneven fight though it may be, there is something powerful in seeing the scale of people’s outrage against blatant favouritism towards wealth.

Taft-Hartley was one of many moves against the working classes in the United States which we should repudiate today.  More than ever, under court- and legislature-backed assaults from corporate interest, and bludgeoned by foul economic winds, working people need the means to hold their political representatives to account.  Because Governor Walker, in common with members of his party in Washington, D.C. and across the country have forgotten something—they are people’s representatives, not their masters, charged with looking after our interests.  They are public servants—and their behaviour and ethics are a discredit to all those other public servants and workers (whether private or public sector) who are braving Wisconsin’s winter, fighting to keep hard-won rights.

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