04 January 2011

Attack on Unions Looms in States

Another day, another attack from the Right on everyday Americans. This time, it's the unions they're after, and with them, the livelihoods, safety and economic security of millions of working people -- including more than 14,000 child care workers in Ohio, who could soon have their right to unionize stripped from them if conservative lawmakers have their way. 

According to an article in today's New York Times, political leaders in a number of Republican controlled states are now promising to take steps to weaken unions and limit workers' ability to collectively bargain -- an effort, they say, to shrink dangerously bloated state budgets.

But their tactics signal a dangerous return to a time before unions were empowered to protect the basic rights of workers, and unbridled corporate exploitation was the norm. Decades of advancement to secure the rights of working families are now on the line, and if their efforts succeed, many women, people of color and low-income workers -- for whom unions remain a vital resource -- are all but certain to find themselves once again vulnerable to unchecked abuse from corporate entities.

Though a number of states are now working on different approaches to curtailing union power, the most draconian set of measures is coming from Ohio, where conservatives currently control the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature. As The Times notes,
Of all the new governors, John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, appears to be planning the most comprehensive assault against unions. He is proposing to take away the right of 14,000 state-financed child care and home care workers to unionize. He also wants to ban strikes by teachers, much the way some states bar strikes by the police and firefighters.

“If they want to strike, they should be fired,” Mr. Kasich said in a speech. “They’ve got good jobs, they’ve got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?”

Mr. Kasich also wants to eliminate a requirement that the state pay union-scale wages to construction workers on public contracts, even if the contractors are nonunion. In addition, he would like to ban the use of binding arbitration to settle disputes between the state and unions representing government employees. 
The impact these rollbacks could have on working families cannot be overstated. Without the ability to organize, or the strength of a well-funded union behind them, low- and middle-income workers often have little recourse to defend their rights -- to decent wages, to safe working conditions, to sick leave and vacation time. And if you take the time to think about who fills all those jobs Governor Kasich is planning on barring from unionizing, you'll see that women and people of color -- who make up a large percentage of the teachers and child care workers who will be penalized -- are going to be some of the biggest losers if conservatives win this battle.

We certainly didn't need another example of how conservatives plan to push their winner-take-all agenda at the expense of working people and economic recovery -- but here it is. Unions, and the opportunity they provide for workers to organize, are often the only piece of infrastructure keeping families from total economic collapse. In a time of economic crisis, doesn't that count for anything? And the child care workers in Ohio that the Governor wants to shut out of unions? Without union protection they could quickly become among the lowest paid workers in the country, as non-union childcare workers are. So, if we're looking for ways to stimulate our economy, how does taking money out of workers' pockets get us to a better place? Are these the kind of priorities we really want for America?

The short answer is, it doesn't -- but that seems to matter little to the right-wingers pushing for this change. What apparently matters more is keeping corporations -- the bread and butter of conservative fundraising -- feeling happy and flush. And that's exactly what these new measures are designed to do.

Though our digitized, fast-paced, 21st Century economy makes it easy for some of us to think of unions as history's relics, we must remember that for many working people, unions continue to provide the only viable path to economic security and justice. Over the last few years in New York, we learned how desperately domestic workers were in need of employment protections, and just last year witnessed the important role organizing can play in enacting policy changes that protect workers from abuses and guarantee basic standards like overtime pay. But laws like the ones planned in Ohio and elsewhere could make it spectacularly difficult for worker groups to organize going forward. That's a fact conservatives see as a big win for business, but which we know is an epic fail for society as a whole.

Union leaders are poised to push back on the proposed measures, of course, and they are joined in that effort by remarkable grassroots organizing groups like Ms. Foundation grantee Jobs with Justice, who have been fighting for economic justice and worker rights since long before the Right announced its newest assault. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether voters would actually endorse so much anti-union activity in the midst of continuing economic turmoil and the growth of corporate power.

But frightening truth is that the threat to working families remains, and as with a number of other agenda items, conservatives now have a better shot at getting this done they they have in recent memory.

Fasten your seat belts, friends. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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