Executive Director Reports

Race to top, race to bottom on collision course

There’s a lot of media attention focused on the “race to the top,” the national effort to improve the performance of public schools throughout the country.

It’s one of the few government programs that has business support. While I disagree with some of the particulars – the emphasis on merit pay and test scores, for example – I do believe that the program’s thrust points in the right direction. I’m sure all AFSCME members want our children to get the best education possible. We have no choice if we want to maintain the high living standards that became part of the American way of life after World War II. Ironically, at the same time the government applies its resources to lifting education standards, there is a concerted campaign being conducted by elements in the business community, to force a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and benefits.

The downward trend has been evident for some time in the private sector. It is driven by a combination of related factors, including:

The result has been a decline in real wages, growing inequality of income, fewer workers with employer-provided insurance, and even fewer with pensions that provide retirement security.

Having largely succeeded at depressing compensation levels for private-sector workers, the corporate community has now trained its sights on public employees. Hardly a day goes by without an editorial blasting away at “Cadillac” public pension plans or health care subsidies for retirees.

Taking the argument to its extreme, a recent commentary in the Boston Globe advocated abolishing public-sector unions altogether because they’ve been so successful in raising wages and benefits.

The rationale of those launching the attacks is that public employees shouldn’t be treated any better than workers who labor for private businesses.

By this logic, if a group of people were blind in one eye, rather than trying to restore their sight, we should poke out an eye of the folks fortunate enough to have two.

Where were the strident voices now urging “parity” between public and private sector workers when private-sector workers were granted bargaining rights in the 1930s under the National Labor Relations Act, but public employees were excluded? In the half century from then to 1983, when we finally won collective bargaining rights in Illinois, I don’t recall any of their voices being raised about public employees getting payed far less than their private sector counterparts and with far less generous benefits.

For them, parity’s not the real issue. No, they see an opportunity to play on people’s frustrations as a means to drive down public employees’ wages and benefits—thus further reducing expectations for what constitutes fair compensation in our society.

It’s the very same corporate types pushing the race to the top in education who are driving the pace car in the race to the bottom in employee compensation. They want better schools so the kids of working and low-income families will be prepared for jobs of the future. But they want to drive wages so low that those jobs won’t be worth much when our kids get there.

At one time, American workers were urged to believe in the American Dream, which would allow them to own a home, take vacations, have a few dollars in the bank, send their kids to college, and retire with a measure of dignity and security.

But today that dream looks more like a fantasy as corporate America pursues a relentless drive to increase profits at the expense of workers’ economic security. So suddenly workers are labeled “overpaid” if they’re earning say $45,000 a year, barely enough to pay a mortage and keep the kids in sports shoes.

And the sad reality is that workers earning those wages do indeed make a lot more than hundreds of millions of their fellow citizens. That’s why we’ve got to rev up our engines and get the compensation race cars turned around.

Otherwise, when the young people of today succeed in that educational race to the top, they’re just going to have to turn around and drive right back to the bottom as they head out into the world of work.

We need better schools, but we also need jobs that pay better. And to get there, we need a bigger, stronger labor movement.

To protect all of the gains that we in the public sector have made, we need to do all that we can to help unions grow once again in the private sector as well. In the end, maybe it’s not the case that we’re all in separate cars racing past each other; but rather that we’re all in the same boat—and we will all sail or sink together.