Thursday, June 30, 2011

Friends like these: Brown and Miliband v. labour

Could today be said to mark the end of formal progressive politics in Britain?  The Liberal Democrats remain mired in the inconsistencies of their unholy alliance with the chain-saw wielding Conservative Party that is hell-bent on wrecking Britain’s public services.  And today, as hundreds of thousands of public sector workers gathered across Britain to protest cuts to services and to their pensions, Ed Miliband called the strikes “wrong”. 

Not misguided, not ill-timed, not strategically-mistaken: wrong.  Any of these other descriptors, while craven, would at least have preserved the impression that the Labour Party leader, who owes his position largely to the backing of trades union membership, at least recognises the moral impetus and rectitude behind the strikes.  But here, as in his efforts to be tougher on crime than the Conservatives in opposing Ken Clarke’s prison reforms from the right, he is thinking too much in electoral arithmetic and is not practising any kind of moral calculus.

But Miliband keeps good political company.  California Governor Jerry Brown was today applauded by media for “demonstrating an independence from his union backers by vetoing an undemocratic and unbalanced labor bill”, as if stiff-arming the workforce is in itself a good thing!  Brown, who seldom fails to mention (especially when in the company of Latino voters) his former association with César  Chávez  (never as cosy as Brown likes to make out), is making a typically short-termist move in trying to set himself up as the neutral arbiter, independent from the influences of organised labour.

In common with Miliband, Brown sees association with organised labour as a losing proposition.  But this need not be so.  However, Democratic and Labour Party leadership have ceded the field to their right-wing opponents who now (as successfully in Britain and unsuccessfully in the U.S. in the 1930s) restate an older argument about the division of the world into the constitutional middle classes and the unionised working classes.  The end.

But of course it’s not as easy as that.  The line between middle and working classes is fuzzy, and those who purport to speak for the middle classes tend to be the extraordinarily affluent, keen to project themselves as just “regular people”, under siege from militant unions.  And the class thing doesn’t quite map in another respect.  Because what the Republican and Conservative Parties are trying to do is to foster an ugly resentment in the hearts of non-unionised workers (whose protection was stripped from them by the same right-wingers) against their better-off unionised brethren. 

These two parties are trying to start a fight between people who largely share interests.  If private sector workers were unionised in large numbers, they could make the same sorts of gains that public sector workers have (instead they are encouraged to drag public sector workers down to their less-protected, often more poorly-compensated level).  Workers across these sectors share not only an interest in making their employers more accountable, but in the adequate funding of public services.

The education sector is a good example.  The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently published data showing the change in median family income against changes in tuition at public two-year colleges in the U.S. between 1999 and 2009 (historically the most accessible sector of the public education sector).  In California, income (uncorrected for the increases in cost of living) increased something on the order of 5% or less.  Tuition skyrocketed nearly 80%.  The story is the same for four-year colleges, long an incredibly good deal for the middle classes in particular.  Again, California saw a roughly 5% increase in income alongside a massive 90% increase in tuition.  (2011 Report, 4-6.)

The story is equally grim where K-12 education is concerned.  What appears to be California’s budget will make further violent cuts to the California State University and University of California systems, forcing tuition further upwards.  It is also based (and yet somehow this isn’t one of the “accounting tricks” commentators have been decrying) on untested assumptions about revenue windfalls rather than on a solid source of revenue, and should these assumptions fall short, CSU and UC will face further cuts, and K-12 schools will see their year cut by a week.

This will come with a long-term price-tag.  A growing number of students in California do not complete high school (around 20%).  The number falls to 2.6% in Contra Costa County’s San Ramon, and rises to an unconscionable 63.3% in Los Angeles’ Vernon Central (Portrait of California 142-50).  Startlingly, “one hundred of California’s nearly 2,500 high schools account for nearly half of the state’s dropouts.  In about seventy high schools, more than half of the students drop out” (Portrait of California 98). 

Attainment of a high school diploma has been shown to be tied to “longer life expectancy, better health, less crime, generational transfer of knowledge and civic participation” (Portrait of California 77).  As a legacy of Proposition 13, California spends far less money on education per-student than other states, and has dropped from being a leader in the education of K-12 students to one of the worst-ranked states in the union.  Proposition 13 has led to an estimated $13 billion less in revenue per year during the 2000s, with devastating consequences for the education sector, the motor of our state’s economy. 

At a time when “educational attainment is a key driver of earnings”, California (in common with the nation) will face a shortage of highly-educated and –skilled workers.*

The story is much the same in Britain, where government funding for higher education has plummeted to such an extent that it is now fair to say that Britain’s universities have been stealthily privatised.  At a time when their is little formal political will to resist the trend against social cohesiveness and responsibility (although much of California’s Democratic Party is disgusted with Brown), it falls to the “informal” political sphere—the workforce—to object to the attack on our future.

* “The United States is not producing enough highly skilled workers to meet labor market demand, and the earnings of such workers are thus increasing sharply in comparison to the wages of people with less education.  The problem is acute in California [...] Another factor in wage stagnation is the decline in unionisation among California workers, which can, in turn, partially be attributed to the declining fortunes of the heavily organised manufacturing sector.  Research has shown that unionised salary and wage workers in California earn 13.3 percent more per hour than non-union workers in similar positions and that the union wage premium, though in effect across the full range of salaries, is most substantial for workers at the lower end of the earnings distribution.  Though the union wage premium has declined somewhat for low-wage workers in the past two decades, union wages remain higher than the comparable wages of non-union workers in similar positions at all levels of the wage scale in California.  In addition, unionised workers are far more likely to enjoy benefits that enhance their living standards and provide economic security, such as health insurance and retirement savings plans”.  (Portrait of California 117-118).   And of course the Republican Party in California would rather target unionised labour than try to transmit these benefits to the workforce as a whole (failing to understand—or perhaps understanding all too well) that unionised workers' successes don't stem from some knee-jerk political support of unions, but from the power of a unified workforce—something which would bode ill for the profits of the financial, energy, big ag and other interests backing the Republican Party

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