Executive Director Reports

Collective bargaining: Defend it or lose it

In states all across the country we are witnessing unprecedented assaults on the basic union rights of public employees.

From New Hampshire in the East to Oklahoma in the West, from Wisconsin in the North to Florida in the South, Republican governors backed by their party's legislators have launched attacks not simply to cut pay and benefits, but to severely restrict, and in some cases outright eliminate, the right to union representation.

These politicians claim their proposals are about attempts to balance their budgets. But that lie was exposed when Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, who couldn't muster a quorum to vote on a budget bill, stripped his legislation of all budget issues, then passed and signed a bill that wipes out public employees' bargaining rights.

If you think it's a coincidence that this war against workers' rights is being launched simultaneously in so many states, guess again.

This is a well-coordinated campaign with a clear agenda:

• Weaken or eradicate public-sector unions. With union membership in the private sector down to 7 percent of the workforce, public workers now constitute a majority of union members in this country.

When it comes to fighting for working families, no one can match the labor movement. Whether it's the preservation of Social Security, the guarantee of affordable health care, or quality public services, organized labor is the backbone of the effort.

If the power of public employee unions can be undermined by abrogating bargaining rights (and outlawing dues checkoff), unions can be eliminated as an impediment to the triumph of the corporate agenda to gut Social Security, slash Medicare, weaken worker safety laws and loosen regulations so business can run even more wildly roughshod.

• Redefine what constitutes a middle-class lifestyle and what people's expectations should be from their employer.

When private-sector unions were stronger, workers shared in the bounty of our economy. As productivity increased, everyone benefited. Workers won wages that allowed them to purchase a house, educate their kids. Health insurance was largely paid by the employer and modest pensions provided folks with retirement security. Public-sector unions built on this progress.

But today Big Business wants workers to be happy to have any job at all and not to dare think that health care might be affordable or their retirement secure.

• Deflect attention from their corporate benefactors who are largely responsible for the mess we're in.

Instead of blaming the Wall Street financiers who engineered the country's economic collapse or the business moguls who shipped good jobs abroad to make an extra buck, the right wingers who are aggressively pushing this anti-middle-class agenda want the public to think that it's the exorbitant pay of teachers, firefighters and other public servants that is responsible for the deep recession.

But their lies don't add up.

The only public employees I know of who've gotten rich are the seven state employees in New York who pooled their money a couple of weeks ago and had a winning lottery ticket worth $312 million. If any others are wealthy, they either married well or risked jail. They certainly didn't get rich from their salary.

Make no mistake about it, the guys at the top, who now control some 75 percent of our country's wealth, want to turn the American dream of having a good-paying job with decent benefits into a nightmare for most Americans. They want to turn the clock back to a time when you worked until you died, when you didn't have the time or money to take a vacation, a time when you couldn't afford to send your child to college.

They are brazen in their aims and bold in their tactics. If we don't stand up and stop them now, it will soon be too late. If they succeed in completely eliminating labor unions, working families will be defenseless - each left to fend for themselves against the immense concentration of wealth and power that Big Business now has.

We've seen a tremendous display of spirit and resilience by the unions in Wisconsin. They have galvanized not only union members but a wide swath of Badger State residents who have come to recognize the importance of collective bargaining not simply as a democratic right but as an important tool in preserving an ever-shrinking middle class.

This fight is about freedom - the freedom to associate and act collectively to make our voice heard and to fight for a just share of the nation's wealth.

Our opponents recognize this. That's why they are trying to crush us, and that's why each one of us must fight back with everything we've got.

That's why so many AFSCME members have flocked to Wisconsin and Indiana, and that's why each of us must be engaged in the battles here in our own backyard.