Conservatives have successfully demonized the idea of organized labor to the extent that a lot of people probably think that unions are merely there for self-aggrandizement or shaking down taxpayers. In truth, a labor-led working environment is one that can bring benefits to the worker and lift them out of poverty. I find this example from Ohio to be very instructive.
Jodi and Ralph Taylor are public workers whose jobs as a janitor and a sewer manager cover life’s basics. They have moved out of a trailer into a house, do not have to rely on food stamps and sometimes even splurge for the spicy wing specials at the Courtside Bar and Grill.
While that might not seem like much, jobs like theirs, with benefits and higher-than-minimum wages, are considered plum in this depressed corner of southern Ohio. Decades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work that makes public-sector jobs look great in comparison.
Now, as Ohio’s legislature moves toward final approval of a bill that would chip away at public-sector unions, those workers say they see it as the opening bell in a race to the bottom. At stake, they say, is what little they have that makes them middle class.
“These jobs let you put good food on the table and send your kids on school trips,” said Monty Blanton, a retired electrician and union worker. “The gap between low and middle is collapsing.”
The perverse implications of this are clear. An economy that doesn’t have middle class jobs in the public sector is less likely to have them in competing industries in the private sector. Worker power is in many ways dictated by the ability to point to other jobs with comparable or favorable wages. Without workers able to collectively bargain, employers hold all the cards, and wages stagnate, with the very richest breaking away from the poor. In fact, that’s the logical consequence of a world without unions – income inequality and grinding poverty.
In previous years, it was manufacturing that offered hope for low-skill workers to move into the middle class and provide for their families. Public service jobs cannot replicate that; there aren’t enough of them, and most require more skills and education. But taking public employees’ right to bargain away just allows all other private industries to breathe a sigh of relief. Employers like high unemployment and no unions. It does wonders for their labor costs.
I think this is why 20,000 non-union members have joined the AFL-CIO’s “Working America” solidarity group chapter in Wisconsin since the Madison protests.
Working America field organizer Kevin Pape said that in addition to the traditional door-to-door canvassing, the group has been actively recruiting new members at the rallies around the state. Pape said that at these protests, they have had large numbers of people approaching them and asking about the organization. “It’s pretty much the easiest organizing you can ever do,” he said.
“People are just thirsty for a connection to a labor movement,” Pape added. “The effort required to get somebody to join has definitely decreased. This is an avenue to join the labor movement, and they’re just jumping at it.”
Working America regional director David Wehde said that in their door-to-door recruitment, many people are eager to show solidarity with the protesters but can’t make it to the big rallies in Madison. “So when we come by their doors and check in with them about what’s going on, they’re literally grabbing our clipboards and saying, ‘Great! What do I need to do?’ That’s one group of folks, and that’s a level of intensity that is new.”
Workers of all stripes – public and private, union and non-union – see the value in banding together and asserting their rights. This is something that politicians can’t take away even if they restrict collective bargaining. And it will prove fatal to those efforts as well.