Obvious political truths are sometimes smothered by special interests. The cover-up of the Democrats' national anti-union agenda is possible because to reveal it for the ruse it is would cause enormous disturbances for the Democratic Party, some labor leaders, liberal organizations and, consequently, the larger political system.
Here is the short list of states with Democratic governors where labor unions are undergoing severe attacks: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, California, New York, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland and New Hampshire. Other states with Democratic governors are attacking unions to a lesser degree.
The Democrats in these states have sought to distance themselves from the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who have specifically attacked the collective bargaining rights of unions. The Democrats in the states listed above all hide their anti-union attacks behind a “deep respect for collective bargaining,” a position akin to that of a thief who will steal your car but, out of respect, will not target your deceased grandmother's diamond earrings.
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For example, the anti-union Democratic governor of Connecticut is demanding $1.6 billion in cuts from state workers. The contract has not been ratified yet, but Governor Malloy referred to the agreement as, “historic because of the way we achieved it – we respected the collective bargaining process and we respected each other, negotiating in good faith, without fireworks and without anger.”
Washington State's anti-union Democratic governor uses similar language: “They [labor unions] contributed [to fixing the state budget deficit] with a salary cut; they contributed by paying more in health care. They have stepped up and said we want to be a part of the solution. I did it by going to the table, respecting their collective bargaining rights and we got the job done.”
Oregon's anti-union Democratic governor is demanding a 20 to 25 percent pay cut for state workers:
“But,” he said, “those concessions will be made across a bargaining table through our collective bargaining process and with mutual respect.”
Normally, this garbage wouldn't fool a fourth grader, but some labor leaders are playing dumb in the hopes that the current attacks will not ruin the longstanding friendship between unions and Democrats. Of course, such hopes are founded on illusion: workers are not so blind as to overlook the fact that the governors they campaigned for are now launching an unprecedented attack on their wages and benefits.
But by minimizing the Democrats' role in targeting unions, some labor leaders are disarming the labor movement. On the one hand, leaders of both the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win have clearly named the stakes following the events in Wisconsin: “Labor is in the fight of its life,” is one of their most accurate observations, as well as, “The corporations are out to bust unions.” On the other hand, both of these union federations have also made excuses for the anti-union Democratic Party, enabling labor to be vulnerable on its left flank to the anti-union attack.
The fight against massive cuts in wages and benefits cannot be separated from the attack on collective bargaining; they are two sides of the same coin. Workers only care about collective bargaining because it enables them to improve their wages and benefits. A union that agrees to massive cuts in wages will not remain a union for long, since workers will not want to pay dues to an organization that cannot protect them. Concessionary bargaining destroys the power of a union in the same way that cancer destroys the body; pulling the plug – that is, ending collective bargaining – comes after losing a battle with cancer.
Combating concessionary cancer is the essence of the fight. This is the real lesson of Wisconsin: workers want to fight back against the nationwide attack against their livelihoods, whether it is against wages and benefits or against collective bargaining. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win realize this to a certain degree; they are separately creating campaigns to deal with the attack, with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) jumping out in front with its Fight for a Fair Economy.
These union campaigns are doomed to fail if the energy they generate is funneled into the 2012 campaign for Barack Obama.
The attack workers are facing is colossal: any successful union campaign will require massive resources and energy. If workers are told to halt their campaigns to door-knock and make phone calls for Obama, the campaign will lose all legitimacy, since Obama has established himself as a friend of Wall Street and, thus, no friend to workers. Voting for Democrats has a demoralizing effect on workers when the inevitable betrayal happens, and demoralized union members will not fight as effectively for their own pro-union campaign.
If a union campaign is to be successful, workers must be energized around it. SEIU's campaign focuses largely on making more connections with other labor and community groups, which is very positive. However, without waging an energetic battle to prevent state workers from making massive concessions, the campaign will fail. Workers who make massive concessions will be demoralized and not take the union campaign seriously, since it failed to address their most pressing needs. The fight to defend state workers has the potential – as Wisconsin proved – to unleash tremendous fighting energy among workers, while also uniting those in the broader community who are eager for working people to fight back.
If labor unions continue down their current path of making huge concessions in wages and benefits while they excuse the Democrats for attacking them, the movement will wither and die.
If, instead, labor unions demand that state budget deficits be fixed by taxing the rich and corporations, workers would respond enthusiastically. If public-sector unions built demands based on no cuts, no concessions, workers would energetically join the union's cause. If unions banded together to demand the creation of a national jobs campaign by taxing the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, a flood of energy would erupt from working people in general. If, during election time, unions joined together to run their own independent candidates with these demands, an unstoppable movement would quickly emerge.
Without aggressively demanding solutions to the immediate problems facing working people, a social movement cannot be created to deal with the crisis facing labor unions and working people in general. Only a national social movement with Wisconsin-like energy has the potential to shift the country's direction, away from the rich and corporations and toward working people. Such a social movement will not be born from soft demands, half-fought battles or campaigning for Democrats.