The hate for public sector unions is palpable in the wake of the Governor Scott Walker’s re-election in a recall vote. There’s a lesson to be learned in what’s happened in Wisconsin, as well as this week’s vote in a pair of California cities. In Wisconsin, Walker instituted a well-publicized campaign following his 2010 election, stripping public sector unions of collective bargaining rights and instituting right-to-work measures, which saw union membership drop by more than 50 per cent. Opponents, making use of the state’s recall provisions, were able to force another election, which Walker won handily, increasing his margin of victory.
Also this week, voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly supported cuts to pensions of city employees as a way to save money.
The clear message is that voters have had enough of what they see as civil servant entitlement. It’s a message Dalton McGuinty should be taking to heart as he tackles a deficit largely fueled by over-inflated wages and salaries.
But it’s also a lesson in the dangers of polarized politics. And the dangers of monetizing democracy: the U.S., in particular, has an electoral process that is all about special interests – mostly corporations – buying the vote. The attack on unions is a double-edged sword, reeling in government budgets at the cost of further erosion of the middle class.
Unions have been their own worst enemies, both in the private and public sectors. But even as real incomes in the private sector decline, along with union membership, the public sector has continued to prosper, much more in this country even than in the U.S. That’s not sustainable, but the fact has eluded public sector workers. The reality crashing down on them south of the border is only now starting to show itself here.
Many of us, however, are reveling in a certain amount of schadenfreude over the plight of union workers. Unions have a poor reputation, and we take some delight in watching them falter.
At the heart of this sentiment is our jealousy of others taking in more money and benefits even though we see them as less deserving. This is especially true of government employees, often tarred as underworked and overpaid at the expense of productive workers.
The recession has been hammering the manufacturing sector, traditionally the heart of unionism. Instead of sympathy, we’re seeing attacks on the unions themselves, kicking them when they’re down. While much of the criticism is valid, history shows us that we’re cutting our own throats by doing away with what unions represent because the organizations have become corrupt, self-serving and out of touch with today’s workplace.
The fact is, though, that you can thank the labour movement, and unions in particular, for many of the employee benefits we enjoy today, including a five-day workweek, holidays, vacation time, benefits, pension, and safety measures. Much of what was gained by long struggle is being clawed back now, with nary a whimper for a large segment of the population that stands to lose.
What’s at stake is summed up nicely in a report released this week by the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Research Network.
Entitled Canadian Inequality: Recent Developments and Policy Options and compiled by University of British Columbia academics, the report quantifies the growing income gap at the heart of the recent Occupy rallies, globalization protests and similar grassroots movements. It puts numbers to talk of the 1%: an annual income of $230,000 is needed to make the cut, with some 275,000 Canadians qualifying for that label (one per cent of 27.5 million adults in the country). That group has an average income of $450,000, significantly higher than the average working income of $36,000. As with other studies, this one shows the gap is widening, resulting in a “polarization” of the workforce as fewer jobs pay middle-class wages and greater number of workers at the lower end of the scale and more concentration in the upper reaches.
Researchers documented this “hollowing out” of the workforce between 1980 and 2005, coinciding with the Reagan/Thatcher era of globalization and attacks on the middle class. In the context of the unions, the declining economic fortunes of those on the lower end of the spectrum – a growing number – have been worse in the U.S. and the UK, for instance, than in countries where union membership has remained stronger, such as Canada and Germany.
Those findings jibe well with an historical perspective that showed what we now take for granted as the middle class emerged following the Second World War, as the economy expanded, union membership was at its highest levels (mostly in the private sector) and tax rates were in the range – as much as 80 and 90 per cent – that are simply beyond worst nightmares of today’s fervent corporate-tax-cut believers.
The correlation is no coincidence. As much as the pendulum has swung too far in favour of public sector unions – which should have been curtailed from the start, as they run contrary to the public good – the gains during the heyday of private sector unions will continue to slip away as long as we forget that those opposed to progressive changes in the past – hey, what’s wrong with child labour? – are the same ones opposed to civil society today.