Labor’s Last Stand

Labor’s Last Stand

As the showdown in Wisconsin demonstrates, progressives must embrace the government workers’ struggle as our own—or else.


Emboldened by November’s election results, corporations and their right-wing allies have launched what they hope will be their final offensive against America’s unions. Their immediate target is government workers’ unions. While New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie has gained national fame by beating up on public school teachers, the threat to unionized workers is playing out in all fifty states, to the drumbeat in the media about states going broke because of government workers’ wages, pensions and benefits. By late January, with the swearing-in ceremonies complete in the twenty-one states where Republicans have a “trifecta,” controlling the governor’s office and both statehouses, hundreds of bills had been introduced seeking to hem in unions if not ban them altogether. On February 11, Wisconsin’s new Republican Governor Scott Walker made what amounts to a declaration of all-out war on public sector workers in his historically progressive state, moving to deprive them of the very right to bargain collectively on matters essential to their economic security.

Walker’s gambit has rightly elicited outrage, but considering the breadth of the attack unions are facing nationally, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Right-to-work legislation has been filed in twelve states; this is in addition to the twenty-two that already have such laws on the books. In technical terms, this legislation makes it illegal for employers to condition employment on union membership or the equivalent dues payments even when a majority of workers vote to form a union; practically speaking, it makes building and maintaining a strong union very difficult, which in turn makes it harder to organize new workplaces because there are few positive examples of unions to point to. In Virginia, the corporations and right-wing ideologues decided that the existing right-to-work law wasn’t sufficient, and introduced a measure to embed the right-to-work provisions in the state Constitution. Three more states—Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin—are expected to have bills introduced converting their legal status to right-to-work.

Alabama passed legislation in January that bans public employee unions from collecting dues unless the unions first prove that none of the money will be used for supporting election campaigns. In every subsequent year after the initial certification, the union must submit itemized reports accounting for how its money is being spent. This law, sold as “paycheck protection” by the right but known as “paycheck deception” among union activists, has been introduced in four other states this year, including Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In California there has already been ballot initiative language submitted to do the same. Using a variety of legal tools, these measures prohibit the use of union dues for political activity. Union advocates are expecting twelve more states to file bills or initiatives banning the collection of union monies for politics.

Building and construction unions are facing their own daunting lineup of bills that would gut prevailing wage laws and what are known as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These measures facilitate collective bargaining and the division of labor for unionized construction jobs, particularly construction jobs with public financing. In twenty states there is legislation expected to ban PLAs. In Iowa the new governor, Terry Branstad, was so excited to take up the challenge, he undid PLAs with his first executive order. The new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has pledged to eliminate prevailing wage laws. It’s hard to say whether Missouri or Maine will beat him to his goal, though: Missouri’s legislation to ban prevailing wages has been introduced, and the new governor of Maine appointed the head of the building and construction industry organization to the position of state legislative director, a sure sign that he’s serious about eliminating such laws. The AFL-CIO says it anticipates anti–prevailing wage laws in fifteen states.

It is government workers, however, who face attacks in every state. Teacher tenure is being targeted in five states: New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, Idaho and Florida. Laws that would allow parents, by petition, to “trigger” an entire school district to move to charter schools or to voucher programs are expected in at least eleven states. States that are considering either weakening or removing entirely the ability of public sector workers to bargain collectively include not only Wisconsin but Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Measures to dismantle benefits for government workers are expected in some form in all fifty states. Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, are pushing to allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would enable them to break their agreements that cover the pensions of hundreds of thousands of retired government workers. On top of all this, President Obama has called for a freeze on federal workers’ pay.

At the same time, a push to privatize public assets and services is mounting, posing a dire threat to public workers. Groups like In the Public Interest ( are working to hold back the privatization tide, but the momentum is on the other side. Donald Cohen, the group’s chair, notes a recent shift in the nature of the opposition. “The entire world of public administration is being driven by a new cartel of consulting firms who offer their services to elected leaders—peddling themselves as efficiency experts,” he says, explaining that these firms are increasingly playing the role that used to be filled by right-wing think tanks. “They are accounting firms, law firms and more who promote privatization, and they make money for completing the deal. And yet it has very little to do with efficiency and probably nothing to do with actually improving public services.”

It isn’t as if these types of attacks on unions are new; what’s different is their scale, intensity and real possibility of success. After outspending unions in November’s election by an estimated 4-to-1 margin, corporations and their allies are exploiting the fiscal crises across the nation to drive a stake into the heart of what is left of organized labor—public workers’ unions. According to the just-released Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report for 2010, the overall union membership rate in America continued its slide, dropping from 12.3 percent to 11.9 percent. But perhaps most striking is the way unionization is skewed when comparing private sector workers, who are just 6.9 percent unionized, and public sector workers, 36.2 percent of whom belong to unions. The public sector, in other words, is labor’s last stronghold.

Grover Norquist laid out a sort of blueprint for the current right-wing assault in the February 2001 American Spectator. Identifying labor unions as the first of “five pillars” of Democratic strength, he calculated that they “raise $8 billion a year from 16 million union members paying an average of $500 dues,” and outlined a game plan for destroying union power, key to the right’s larger mission of abolishing all regulations that impede its agenda, from environmental laws to occupational safety to affirmative action.

But, of course, the right’s campaign against labor has been decades in the making. In 1975 the overall unionization rate in the private sector was 25 percent. Thanks to the class war that has been waged since then—involving trade liberalization, radical reorganization of global finance rules, unionbusting, deindustrialization, rejiggered accounting rules and more—Norquist’s goal is now within reach for the right. According to union expert and author Bill Fletcher Jr., “There has been a three-decade campaign by the neoliberal Democrats and the right wing to destroy the base of the strength of the American middle class, which can be boiled down to unions and government regulation of corporate excess. As a result, unionization rates and corresponding pay and benefits now appear higher in the government sector, and the same forces are now attacking government workers’ unions.”

The irony, according to Janice Fine, professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, is that in the 1960s it was the private sector workers who earned more than their government counterparts. “Back then, the private sector unions helped the government workers get organized as part of a program to raise the standards for all workers,” she notes. Now, as Ed Ott, former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, puts it, “After thirty years of wage suppression in the private sector, big business wants to compare wages and benefits between the private sector and the government sector.” Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty did just that in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt,” he wrote. These claims are distorted [see Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson, “The Betrayal of Public Workers”], but to the extent that public workers do enjoy hard-won union benefits, they have a target painted on their back.

The stakes for both political parties in this struggle are high, because where the campaign to gut public sector unions succeeds, Republicans will be poised for almost certain electoral gains. In general, across the nation, the lower the rate of unionization, the redder the state. And in the bluest states, the public sector dominates the union scene: in New York, for example, the most unionized state, the rate among government workers is 70.5 percent, next to 13.7 percent in the private sector. In California the unionization rate among government workers is 56.6 percent, compared with 9.3 percent among the private sector workforce.

There is a strong correlation, moreover, between red states, right-to-work laws, an overall worse quality of life for the average worker or poor person, and a more hostile climate for progressives, from environmentalists to civil rights activists. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her counterpart in a pro-worker state. Twenty-one percent more people lack health insurance. Late last year, immigration advocates anticipated Arizona-like measures in twenty-two states, eleven of which are controlled by Republicans. Of those, seven are right-to-work states. Not surprisingly, three that are not—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana—are where the attack on government workers’ unions is the strongest.

Given the strategic importance of this fight, you would expect the progressive community to be rallying to mount a loud and vigorous counterattack. But the response has been anemic at best. Unions and progressives need to reset and develop a strategy quickly if they are to defend the ground they still hold, let alone recapture what has been lost. For almost forty years, the right has been systematically tearing apart the achievements of unions and social justice movements. The first challenge is to own up to the ways progressives and unions have failed to counter this onslaught.

Take the teachers unions. In the late 1960s they fought against community control of the New York City schools, sparking tension with the black community that lingers even now. As Fletcher argues, this rift is reflective of some of the deeper issues facing unions. “The AFT, at least until fairly recently, in confronting the attacks on public education, tended toward a very defensive posture. Rarely did they contextualize their fight as part of the larger fight to defend the public sector,” he explains. “Their fight almost had the appearance of being a fight to defend a particular craft under assault rather than to defend a key component of civilization.” As a result, Fletcher points out, neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the National Education Association has been able to assemble significant coalitions for education reform, and even in many progressive circles are seen—unfairly—as a hindrance to education rather than as a key champion.

Likewise, 1199/SEIU alienated progressives with its selfish dealmaking under former New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican. For example, when Blue Cross Blue Shield privatized, the healthcare workers union brazenly claimed the one-time windfall of money to pay for wage increases, in exchange for endorsing the man who was stepping on every other member of the traditional Democratic coalition.

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy