Public sector unions are among the only institutions that still stand against the unchecked influence of corporations. And they are under attack.
Published in the May 2011 issue of the New Internationalist.
Three weeks after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched his effort to strip public workers in the state of their collective bargaining rights—and after outraged citizens responded by occupying the State Capitol rotunda—filmmaker Michael Moore travelled to the city of Madison to address the huge demonstrations that had amassed. Soon after, he gave an impassioned interview to cable television host Rachel Maddow that made headlines. Fox News exclaimed, “Michael Moore Declares Class War.”
The right-wing network got it exactly wrong, but its error was revealing. Moore hadn’t called for a war. He’d described an assault that was already happening. “This is a class war,” he said, “that has been leveled against the working people of this country.”
As it happened, Moore was echoing the sentiments of one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. In 2006, investor Warren Buffett was interviewed for the New York Times by Ben Stein, an actor and conservative business commentator. Stein’s views are usually as irritating as the nasal whine he famously employed when he played the schoolteacher calling attendance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But he is one of the rare Republicans who favors higher taxes.
Buffett had discovered that he paid a much smaller percentage of his income in taxes than the secretaries and clerks who worked in his office. In the interview, he expressed his belief that this was wrong.
Stein wrote, “Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.”
“There’s class warfare, all right,” Buffett replied, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
In recent months a new brigade of Republican governors, fresh off victories in the last elections, has escalated the crusade. While Wisconsin—the cheese-making home of champion American footballers, the Green Bay Packers—was the first state to attract national attention, politicians in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and beyond are pushing to privatize public services and undermine unions of government workers.
Eighty-four percent of all income growth in America between 1989 and 2007 went to the richest ten percent of households. That dramatic increase in inequality corresponds closely with the decline of organized labor—from covering 24 percent of workers in the late 1970s to just 11.9 percent in 2010.
Unions of public employees have become targets of conservatives for a reason. Since private businesses have been allowed to violate labor law with near impunity, government has emerged as one of the few places unions retain firm footing. As political donors, public sector unions are among the only institutions that still stand against the unchecked influence of corporations.
The Republicans recognize that a victory against them would have lasting significance. In late February a gonzo blogger telephoned the Wisconsin governor’s office, identifying himself as energy magnate and major right-wing funder David Koch. Walker not only took the call; he gave an oration comparing his actions to Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers—an event that ranks in infamy with Margaret Thatcher’s breaking of the 1984 UK miners’ strike.
“This is our time,” Walker said to his billionaire patron’s imposter, “to change the course of history.”
President Obama, for his part, has energetically denied conservative accusations that he has done anything to encourage protests.
That leaves the labor movement at the helm. Unions—including those that have too long remained sleepy and parochial—have an opportunity to use the crisis to create a revived house of labor that sees itself as part of a wider progressive movement. If this happens, and if the nation’s employees more generally rebel against the overreach of power-hungry governors, these would be positive developments.
Certainly, they are needed ones. Call the most recent attacks whatever you’d like. Warfare by the wealthy is raging.