Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wisconsin Union Battle Red Herring For Larger Issues

By Jass Stewart
To close the gaping hole in Wisconsin’s state budget, Gov. Scott Walker decided to pick a fight.
“With whom?” you ask.
Well, it’s not with corporations that ship jobs overseas. Nor is it with the state’s wealthiest – who continue to enjoy huge tax cuts. And it’s certainly not with high-flying speculators whose greed helped tank the global economy.
Gov. Walker has decided to bully the middle class, the roaring engine of the American economy since the 1940s.
Despite claims to the contrary, unions and collective bargaining (which helped create the middle class) aren’t the principal cause of broken state budgets.
Consider this:
Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina – all non-collective bargaining states – are among the 11 states facing budget shortfalls greater than or equal to 20 percent. South Carolina, another non-collective bargaining state, suffers a shortfall of 17.4 percent. And last, Nevada – where state employees have no collective bargaining rights, but local workers do – has the largest budget shortfall in the country, at 45.2 percent
Conversely, in some places where state workers are unionized – take New Mexico, Montana and Massachusetts as examples – the deficits are significantly smaller, less than 10 percent.
Though I believe Walker’s strategy for balancing the budget is, at a minimum, questionable, I also believe that unions play a role in making his methods politically expedient.
Mismanagement and misplaced priorities have left many in the public with a view of unions as self-serving entities willing to sacrifice productivity and profits for companies and the well-being of society as a whole.
Being pro-middle class, here is what I think unions can do to reframe the debate and win more support from all taxpayers.
First, unions need to continuously remind the public what the labor movement has earned us, such as 40-hour work weeks with weekends off, competitive wages and benefits, safe working conditions and a higher level of job security.
Second, unions should declare that they will no longer protect the worst of the worst performers who bilk the system. A union’s purpose should be to stand up for the rights of hard-working, competent and honest employees.
There’s nothing more taxing on morale, the bottom line and public opinion than having a low-performing employee “get away with” all kinds of shenanigans and still be shielded by the union.
And third, unions should only collectively bargain when the task is a true burden. For example, I know of an instance where management wanted to implement electronic payments for payroll – it’s cheaper for employers and more convenient for workers. But the union, because this was technically a change in the contract, wanted to negotiate a new perk before accepting this benefit. As soon as labor starts fighting for things that are excessive, unions lose public support.
Now, if you are a non-unionized worker and you believe you have something to gain by stripping unions of their benefits, think again. Corporate America will simply use the weakened state of unions to champion a steady race to the economic bottom.
When I was about 15 years old, my family moved out of the housing projects into our first home. I later learned that my father, who loaded trucks for a living, got a union job and a decent wage for the work he performed.
So while I’ve never been a member of a union, and most of my professional career has been in management, I’ve lived the power of unions to help lift a family out of poverty into the middle class.
That’s what this fight in Wisconsin is all about – the survival of the middle class. And this is a fight we have to win.
Jass Stewart is a Brockton City Councilor-at-large.

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