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Working In These Times

Saturday, Dec 19, 2009, 10:30 am

The Economist’s Absurd Attack on ‘Spoiled’ Public-Sector Workers

BY Mischa Gaus

Long ago and not far away at all, punk rock came of age in the early '80s brandishing simple songs and a fearsome brand of politics. Punks like the D.O.A.'s Joey Shithead raged: "I want a war, between the rich and the poor/I wanna fight and know what I'm fighting for/in a class war, class war, class war."

Thirty years later, the battle is still joined—but it's only toffs like those over at The Economist left fighting. For the London-based publication, the working stiff is mostly someone to ignore, unless you're invoking him to decry the moral degeneracy of latter-day protectionists—or taking a velvet-worded swipe at his union.

The latest British invasion is a brazen piece published last week welcoming public-sector employees to "the real world," where everyone earns less, pensions are nearly extinct, and every day fewer people can pull out an insurance card when they call on the doctor.

State and local government workers, we learn from The Economist, are "coddled and spoiled," basking in an alternate reality where it's reasonable to expect to live and work without being forced to draw public assistance (here's looking at you, Wal-Mart) or to have a retirement not spent devastated by the convulsions of the stock market.

The monsters responsible for such spoiling, naturally, are the public-sector unions. Some 37 percent of government workers are unionized, five times more than their private-sector counterparts. The Economist's point is that public worker unions lean on their Democratic patrons to win the cushy life -- and they're bankrupting us all in the process.

A nice simple storyline, but like most, not exactly true. It ignores the exhaustive and depressingly repetitive data from the last three decades that detail the triumph of the managerial class in crushing unionism in private companies, or the recent evidence that workers at Comcast, Hyatt and Delta (and millions of their fellows) would form unions if bosses couldn't intimidate, fire or bribe their way out of an organizing drive.

Back in actual workplaces, whether on a campus in California or in a child welfare office in New Jersey, public union activists will tell you about working for no pay (delicately termed a "furlough"), their worries about weakened pension funds raided for decades by politicians, and their ballooning caseloads as the unemployed and miserably employed try to tap what shallow state support remains.

Unions seeking to represent public workers have made Faustian bargains with Democrats in some cases, trading boosted membership numbers for political support. A willingness to do deals has left many public unions (SEIU's relationship to Blagojevich comes immediately to mind, as do AFSCME concessions given all over the place) reluctant to strike out against Democrats, however, no matter how many times those "friends of labor" stick the hatchet in the back of their old reliable constituency (witness the current healthcare fiasco). Honorable exceptions, like the Communications Workers of America in New Jersey, continue to fight the boss, no matter if he has a D or R after his name.

It's symptomatic of a larger problem public unions face: state and local tax structures are wildly out of whack all over the country, placing hugely regressive burdens on the least well off while enabling corporations to nurse the public teat with abandon through a patchwork of subsidy handouts and tax carve-outs.

Current state and municipal budgetary crises are very real, but there's a better way out of this mess than pushing down living standards for yet another slice of the toiling classes. It starts with figuring out who and what exactly is spoiled rotten in these United States. Could it be the corporations who receive billions in subsidies, the tax rules that favor lawyers over clerks? Or those freshly minted, publicly funded bank bonus millionaires?

If public-sector unions are to confront an economic terrain full of staggering inequality and avoid the inevitable charge of selfishness, they will have to forgo smoky backroom politics and start fighting out in the open. It's a landscape full of targets.

Mischa Gaus is an editor of Labor Notes magazine, the largest independent union publication in the United States.

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