This is not a very happy
Labor Day for labor, considering the continued heavy attacks on public employee unions, which have become the vanguard of
organized labor. More than one-third of public employees are now in unions, while only about 7 percent of private sector workers
Probably nothing could be more damaging to the labor movement
in general than the attempts by anti-union forces to weaken unions at all levels of government by trying to limit– if
not withdraw – their collective bargaining rights and right to strike, in addition to unilaterally cutting the pay and
pensions, health care and other benefits their unions have won in bargaining.
that's all been done in the name of budget balancing, it's more accurately described as union busting, spurred on
by the steady increase in public employee union members, even as the number of private sector unionists has been declining.
It hasn't helped unions, either, that President Obama has turned out
to be far less friendly to labor than he'd promised while securing lots of union money and lots of union supporters to
help him win the presidency. Ironically, the key role unions played in Obama's election has led to
moves by anti-union forces to try to also weaken unions' political rights.
best example of the heavy pressures public employees and their unions are feeling is in Wisconsin, where the movement to strip
public employees of their union rights began, under notoriously anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker.
Republican Walker is not only seeking to deny unionization to most state, county and municipal employees.
He's also been pushing measures that would increase the employees' contributions to pension and health care
funds by up to 50 percent, require their contracts to be re-negotiated yearly, and no longer allow unions to deduct dues from
employee paychecks. It's hard to imagine a union surviving under such restraints. Certainly Gov. Walker and his political
friends don't imagine it.
Wisconsin is but one of at least 18 states,
including several once considered union friendly, where public employees are under heavy attack. On the federal level, supposedly
labor-friendly Obama has imposed a federal pay freeze.
governor, John Kasich, is trying to outdo Walker. He's proposing, among other anti-union measures, to eliminate the bargaining
rights of more than 35,000 of Ohio's public employees, to outlaw teacher strikes, prevent child care and home care workers
from unionizing and repeal a rule that requires paying union wages to non-union workers on public construction projects.
Gov. Walker, however, remains the poster boy for anti-labor stalwarts. His
most outrageous act has been to back a new state law that requires about two-thirds of Wisconsin's school districts to
use employee handbooks to replace collective bargaining agreements that for decades outlined the teachers' pay and duties.
Substituting the handbooks for negotiated contracts gives school administrators the authority
to dictate broad changes in the teachers' working conditions without so much as consulting the teachers. In some school
districts, even the administrators were not consulted before the handbooks with their stringent new conditions were issued.
Teachers are probably our most important public employees. Yet despite
their great importance – or maybe because of it – Gov. Walker is eagerly supporting, not only a withdrawal of
teachers' collective bargaining rights, but also an end to teacher tenure, which protects them from unwarranted attacks
by union foes such as Walker.
Walker also wants a substantial increase in
the already high contributions to their health insurance by teachers and teacher retirees and changes that curtail the teachers'
basic rights and security by allowing them to be hired on a year-to-year basis. The new rules also mandate that in times of
financial constraint, seniority can no longer be a basis for deciding which teachers to lay off.
Some Wisconsin school districts are even trying to reduce the number of sick days allowed teachers, however unwise
it may seem to have teachers with possible communicative illnesses remain in the classroom because they can't afford to
take days off.
Other districts are doing away with at least some paid holidays
or changing extra days used for professional development into workdays and cutting paid lesson preparation periods in half.
The Wisconsin Journal Sentinel's Erin Richards quotes one of Wisconsin's major teacher union leaders as noting that
teachers across the state have been most concerned with losing prep time, which can have a direct effect on the quality of
lessons and student performance.
Gov. Walker and other leading Republicans
don't seem to be much concerned about that. What's more important to them is cutting Wisconsin's education budget,
the influence of teachers on education policy and, of course, all but eliminating the union rights of teachers and all other
But Walker may very well have gone too far. The negative
reaction has been strong and growing in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It's widely realized that if the public employee union
busters are successful, private sector unions throughout the country will feel even stronger opposition. And it's clear
that if anti-union forces can weaken the public employee unions that are the strongest segments of today's labor movement,
it's more than likely that private sector unions will be the next target.
good news is that recently, Wisconsin voters easily turned back a GOP attempt to recall two strong pro-worker state senators
who had helped lead the fight against Walker's anti-worker legislation. The fight began in the spring when Republicans
targeted eight Democratic senators for recall – and lost. There have been nine recall elections since then and labor
has won five of them.
Labor and the Democrats had hoped to
wrest control of the State Senate from the GOP. But though failing to do so, they did narrow the Republicans Senate majority
to a razor-thin 17-16.
Democrats and union leaders are rightly celebrating
the pro-labor election victories as a possible opening shot against anti-labor extremism nationwide, which could in turn lead
to an attempt to recall Gov. Walker or at least force him to back off.
Walker has done his labor enemies a great favor by provoking public outrage that has brought important new strength and solidarity
to the cause of working people and their unions everywhere.
So it may be
a happy Labor Day after all, thanks to a labor opponent.
Copyright © 2011 By Dick Meister