Labor's Last Stand
The lukewarm support for unions generally and for government workers unions in particular in the progressive world is partly a legacy of such missteps by unions themselves. But in addition, there’s a more fundamental source of tension that is often ignored: most people who constitute the opinion-making class among liberals and progressives are upper middle class and mostly white. The progressives in academia and journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class that has little to no contact with unions. Even when there is an intellectual understanding of labor’s role in US history, there is often a lack of sympathy about the need for unions today. This is particularly true among liberal and progressive foundations, where support for unions is often a hot-button issue with boards of directors and top executives. Because these foundations represent the employer class for the social change movement, this has impeded the development of more effective strategies to counter the right-wing agenda.
Even among unions the fissures run deep. In New York, for example, where newly elected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has made slashing the state budget his single-minded mission, organized labor has not put up a united front against the cutbacks. The construction unions were especially eager to sell out the government workers unions for their own benefit. Ott explains how this works: “With the crashing economy, unemployment in the building trades in NYC is now somewhere in the 35 percent range, and some political entity comes along and says to the trades, ‘Hey, we will produce some jobs for your members on the capital side if you support us politically in this revenue fight.’”
This logic is not unusual for construction unions, which operate largely as craft unions—representing workers with a specific craft or skill, who have the ability to negotiate for themselves by withholding that skill. The construction unions have a long history of being an elitist labor force that has been used by politicians to split the union movement.
Rutgers’s Janice Fine says that overcoming divisions will take real work among unions. “When unionization rates and corresponding pay and benefits are so asymmetrical between the public and private sectors, unions have to take very deliberate steps to preserve solidarity,” she says, citing historical examples of public unions providing support to private sector unions by boycotting products, stores and companies, and supporting union products, banks and hotels. “This tradition is gone, and union members need to go back to consuming in a way that supports the unionized class. And private sector unions need to resist the short-term gain of undercutting public sector unions’ wages, benefits and pensions as it will only reinforce a race to the bottom that has no place for unions of any kind.”
The entire house of labor and all progressives must understand that we have not had a moment as threatening as this in our lifetime. The right is making the connections—attacking public employee unions and public services at the same time in order to wage complete war on the poor, people of color, and the working and middle classes of this country. Sadly, the left has not made the connections. To the extent that public sector unions, private sector unions and those fighting budget cuts allow themselves to be divided, they are playing into the right’s hands.
Assuming unions and progressives can focus on the enormity of the challenge before us, let’s review some of the tools and knowledge in our arsenal to defeat the antigovernment and antiunion offensive.
In Nevada, where I led a union that had been heavily dominated by public sector workers, we successfully beat back a divide-and-conquer unionbusting campaign waged by right-wing forces who had teamed up with the Democrats who led county government. In 2003 a Democratic county executive named Thom Reilly aligned with the Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Taxpayers Union to produce a report that sounded the same themes as the current national campaign against government workers. In a media blitz, Reilly blasted public workers for earning more than their private sector counterparts. With a Democrat as the messenger, liberals were confused, including many union members.
In response, we set out first with a massive campaign to educate the rank and file about the coming attack. In the first year, we organized meetings with more than 2,000 government workers by designing an educational module distributed to almost every unionized facility at break times and shift changes. At every union meeting for two years, attention was directed to the economy; the class war against all workers; how the right had come first for private sector unions and now were coming for public sector unions; and the need to “draw a line in the desert” to raise expectations, so that workers could unite to reclaim what they deserved.
We talked openly and often about how, if the county executive wanted to point out the disparity in the pay of unionized government workers versus that of workers in the nonunionized private sector, he was right. But rather than accepting that government workers—including many people of color and women—who still had a decent job with the ability to retire should surrender what they had to the lowest common denominator, we challenged them to get behind two big initiatives. The first was to organize the private sector workers as fast as possible so that we could bring them up to the same standard. The second was to change the image of the government workers by making the quality of the government services reflect the highest standards possible. We wanted “government workers” to have a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the public’s mind.
We kept at these efforts over the next several years, and by the time the government workers arrived at their next round of collective bargaining, the county executive’s message—that county workers were overpaid compared with their private sector counterparts—had lost its force. For one thing, we had raised private sector standards through organizing and negotiating strong contracts. In fact, in a two-year period, the private sector hospital workers went from wages and benefits far below those at the big public hospital to wages higher than and benefits catching up to those of government workers. And through it all, we elevated an internal education campaign and external message framed around the American Dream—who had stolen it and how the way to bring it back was by organizing, bargaining and setting higher standards for all workers. It was crucial that despite lots of strains, union solidarity held together to beat back one ballot initiative after another that sought to all but eliminate the already small tax base in Nevada.
We also took on the libertarian contempt for government that was so popular in Nevada—which was prominently displayed in hateful editorial cartoons like those that are now common in states like New Jersey, depicting government workers as fat, lazy, overpaid bureaucrats. We did this in part by engaging the members in a newly designed training program for union stewards aimed at reshaping the grievance process for a union whose workers perform services for the community rather than assembly line work on a machine. But it was only after thousands of conversations that we were able to help workers—even government workers—overcome their suspicions of government.
We know that Americans are predisposed to be more suspicious of government than they are of unions. Union organizer Fernando Gapasin, co-author of Solidarity Divided, says, “Karl Rove did an analysis of the core values of Americans, and he took that individualism is one core idea. For a lot of people this translates to the corporations as the highest form of someone’s individual aspirations. For a lot of people individual responsibility and individual achievement gets confusing, and it leads to workers telling me that if they were laid off, they would refuse to collect unemployment, because if they or their families can’t take care of themselves, there’s something wrong with them.” The Norquist forces are, in effect, running a message that aligns neatly with the dominant cultural narrative in America. Unions and progressives have a message and solutions that are seemingly running against this narrative. This is precisely why organizers and organizing are required, not simply mobilizing and messaging.
Liberals and progressives don’t understand why, in poll after poll, Americans support Social Security, Medicare and money for their local parks and other services but oppose “big government.” If we want to close the gap in the often bimodal results of polling, we don’t need more polling: we need well-trained and highly skilled organizers who can help facilitate conversations among next-door neighbors and co-workers. We have good “framers.” We have smart policy wonks with big degrees who can write good policy. We have lawyers to defend the policy. And we have no one in any serious way out talking with Americans about this crisis. It’s organizers who help people in large numbers to come to the self-realization that things aren’t working and that it isn’t their fault. Good organizing is really the only way that workers, the unemployed and the poor can overcome the impulse to blame themselves for the crisis they face. Yet liberal foundations often balk at funding such efforts, believing that it won’t add up to policy change and channeling money instead to policy, legal and “communications” work.
Unions and progressives need to return to engaging large numbers of people in one-on-one conversations. Unions should kick-start the campaign by sponsoring and unleashing the biggest Union Summer program of all time and pay student interns, and unemployed rank-and-file workers, to work with union groups and nonunion allies in a mass education campaign that seeks to change the narrative from “We all go down together” to “It’s time to return to the American Dream we all deserve.” Unions must stop pretending to be engaging the base by setting up call centers or buying cellphones for their members. Foundations must stop pretending that unions don’t matter, and that messaging strategies can overcome America’s cultural norms of extreme individualism. Real conversations, where people have a chance to understand the war that is being waged against them and the power they must build, are the only thing that will save us.