Union protests are America's Cairo moment

Union protests are America's Cairo moment

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

The frustration and idealism that poured into the streets of Cairo in early February and eventually changed that nation are finding their counterpoints at state capitals across the United States.

In Egypt, the goal was political freedom; here it’s economic justice. Both are necessary for a healthy society. The Egyptian protesters persevered in the face of bullying rhetoric and violence; America’s working families can change their nation, too, if they show the same courage and determination.

The immediate instigation for the U.S. protests is the attempt by Republican governors and legislators to pay off their big-money backers by breaking some of the last bastions of secure middle-class American lives: public employment and the unions that represent public workers. Under the guise of budget politics, the GOP is pursuing a core ideological dream of a cheap and docile workforce that ensures high corporate profits and low taxes on the wealthy.

That dream has already been fulfilled in much of the private sector, as evidenced by the stagnant real incomes of most American workers over the past 40 years, the replacement of stable pensions by risky 401(k)’s sometimes derisively referred to as 201(k)s because of market volatility and the loss of employer-provided health insurance. Now the corporate-backed Republican Party is turning its firepower on the one exception to this sad tale of crumbling middle-class security: public employment.

That private-sector employees have become more poorly paid, lost benefits and had the risks of retirement shifted to their shoulders at a time when private-sector unions were losing members and influence is no coincidence.

Nor is the fact that public employment has remained stable during a time of increasing public-sector unionization. That’s why the GOP has decided public-worker unions must be broken.

One reason that public-sector unions have survived while their private-sector counterparts have struggled is that governments traditionally were less likely to engage in the kind of underhanded tactics routinely engaged in by industry to keep unions out and their workers down.

But now Republican statehouse politicians are fulfilling their promise to bring business practices to government by attempting to destroy their workers’ unions, rather than cooperate with them to achieve agreed-upon ends.

Make no mistake, public-employees and their union representatives are always ready to negotiate in good faith over necessary changes in collective-bargaining agreements, offering salary and benefit adjustments as part of an overall plan that addresses revenue as well as spending.

But the Republican governors and legislatures have no interest in negotiation, because their real goal has nothing to do with balancing budgets. They welcome confrontation, believing it’s a political battle they can win.

They’re wrong. The Republicans are essentially saying to the general public: “We want public workers to be treated just as terribly as everybody else.”

That’s hardly a winning slogan. Presented with this analogy, the American people are rejecting this race to the bottom, with private-sector workers instead looking at the agreements achieved by their brothers and sisters in the public sector and asking, “Why not us?”

That’s why it’s not just teachers and home care aides waving signs and chanting slogans at state capitols this late winter but clerks from Walmart and office assistants from downtown law firms, machinists and bus drivers, students and retirees. They know that the battle to preserve public sector unions is part of a larger struggle.

The question we face as a nation is how much economic and political power we will allow to be collected in fewer and fewer hands.

Child-care programs being gutted while tax cuts for the wealthy are extended is a reliable sign that the process has regressed a good ways already. The protesters outside the capitols just like the ones in Tahrir Square in Cairo are saying, “Enough!”

Guess history can be made in the Midwest as well as the Middle East.

• Wilson is the national director of Americans for Democratic Action. Readers may write him at ADA, 1625 K Street NW, Suite 102, Washington, D.C. 20006, or www.adaction.org.

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