By Mark Naison
In preparation for my course, The Worker in American Life, I am reading about the broad-based assault on industrial labor that took place during the 1980 and ’90s in a broad swath of the United States from New England through the Pacific Northwest.
Plant closings, transfer of family businesses to international conglomerates, union busting, and finally, the destruction of a wage scale and union rules that allowed factory workers to live in comfort and security and have dignity on the job hit the nation with the force of a juggernaut. In industrial cities, and in small towns which depended on industrial production, the results were devastating. These communities where then beset by a host of social ills – drug epidemics, domestic violence and gang activity, foreclosures, evictions, arson and the erosion of once proud business districts.
The scores of communities where this drama played out eventually achieved a precarious stability, but the prosperity of the post war years never returned, as wage levels lowered to the point where a person had to work two, possibly three jobs, to achieve the income a unionized factory worker once made, or turn to illegal activity to supplement legal income.
Now, an equally comprehensive effort to undermine the bargaining rights of workers dignity and standard of living is underway in the country. On a state and local level, it is being led by Republican politicians who are systematically trying to strip away collective bargaining rights of government workers and to pass “right to work” laws which make the union shop illegal.
Initiatives of the first kind have succeeded in states which were sites of landmark labor conflicts and strong unions, Wisconsin and Ohio, and the second initiative is on the verge of being voted into law in Indiana.
It would be comforting to think that this attack on public workers is coming only from the Republican Party and the political right, but one of the most powerful, and insidious efforts to undermine public worker unionism – the attack on teachers unions – has been driven by foundations and funding sources traditionally associated with the Democratic Party and has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Obama Administration.
Not only did the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the President praise the firing of union teachers in Central Falls Rhode Island who refused to accept the unilateral revision of union rules by the local Superintendent, they have provided huge financial incentives to states and municipalities to create privately managed, non union charter schools and to adopt procedures for rating teachers based on student test scores which will allow for the mass firing of teachers judged “incompetent” by these criteria.
Make no mistake about it, the sum effect of these initiatives, if successful, will be strikingly similar to the offensive against industrial unions in the 80’s and 90’s — it will drive down wage levels substantially and erode dignity on the job for those subject to new managerial prerogatives. How this will help the communities in which this large group of workers lose income, self-respect, and in some cases, employment, is hard to imagine.
It will hurt families, businesses, the housing market, and in all probability, lower wage levels in the private sector as a new source of surplus labor is created. What benefits accrue in lower taxes will hardly compensate for the losses.
If you don’t believe me, just visit Buffalo New York, Youngstown Ohio, or Johnstown Pennsylvania (I have spent time in all three) and other once thriving cities where high worker incomes and job security produced thriving neighborhoods of working class homeowners. Now they have huge stretches of the city where every other lot is vacant, where business districts feature groceries, liquor stores, and storefront churches, and where the drug business is the major source of income for a significant group of young men and growing number of young women.
Let me put the matter bluntly. The last wave of union busting left physical and moral damage that we have not fully recovered from. The new wave about to descend on us will add to the destruction and, perhaps push the social fabric to the breaking point.
There is a phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. If we stand by and let teachers and other government workers have their unions broken, their dignity undermined, and their wage levels shattered by powerful interests who profit from their distress, we will accelerate the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy where the majority of people are living on the edge of poverty while a small elite controls all levels of government and parlays that into unimaginable benefits for themselves.
This is the future that awaits us. Which side are you on?
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program.