The public-sector tilt to organized labor today is not sustainable, one observer says. But where then will workers look for hope?
I had to admire the brave face that Eliot Seide, the head of Minnesota's largest public-employee union, put on the trouncing his side took last Tuesday in Wisconsin's gubernatorial recall election.
After Republican Gov. Scott Walker's victory was clear, Seide -- of AFSCME Council 5 -- issued a statement calling the election "another step in a long march to restore worker freedom in Wisconsin."
He didn't say what direction that step took. He didn't need to.
By keeping Walker in office, Wisconsin voters rejected the pleas for relief by public-employee unions whose collective bargaining and dues-collecting rights were stripped at Walker's initiative in 2011.
It looked to this amateur historian like a major defeat, something about which future scholars of the American labor movement will devote entire textbook chapters.
Or not, said someone who would know -- the University of Minnesota's Hy Berman, this state's leading labor historian.
"This was an event, but not a turning point or a critical event," Berman said Wednesday. "It reinforces a tendency that already exists. It may accelerate that tendency, but that's about all."
"Tendency" is evidently a scholarly term for the suspicion, jealousy and scorn with which a sizable share of today's Americans views labor unions in general and public-employee unions in particular.
I asked the professor emeritus to elaborate.
"There is no such thing as big labor anymore. In fact, in terms of total labor force organization nationally, we are at the same level we were in 1890, about 11 or 12 percent.
"But there's one big difference. In 1890, there were no public-employee unions. Today, that's the bulk of organized workers. That's not a sustainable thing. Private-sector workers won't stand for paying taxes so that public workers get better compensation than they can get."
The claim that public employees do better than their private-sector counterparts is a matter of dispute. But in Wisconsin, there's little doubt that public workers had better pension and health care deals than offered on average in the private sector -- or by governments in other states. Minnesota employees have long contributed a larger share of their own wages to health care and pension funding than Wisconsin's workers did, pre-Walker.
Walker's win means the union-busting changes he initiated will go forward. Berman doesn't expect their reversal anytime soon: "The fundamental base of the labor movement at the height of its strength, from World War II to 1975, was manufacturing. That has diminished in the U.S.; it has disappeared entirely in some industries. Without strong unions in auto, steel, garments, coal and the like, public-sector unions are in trouble."
Berman and I agreed on this much: The Wisconsin win could make Walker's move a template for every other Republican officeholder.
That's not an uplifting forecast. The prospect of American politics devolving into one group of Americans who earn $40,000 a year acting out their resentment of another group earning $40,000 a year does not seem like the path to national greatness.
It might feel good to say, "If I can't have a pension, why should my tax money pay for somebody else to have one?"
But the nation won't be better off in 10 or 20 years if fewer people are able to retire, or if fewer people are able to function as middle-class consumers in retirement. The relative prosperity of American seniors today is rare in human history. To a greater extent than many Americans know, it's a fruit of organized labor.
More precisely, the professor corrected, it's the product of a mid-20th-century balance of power that served average Americans well -- a balance between big business, big labor and big government.
Only one of those three is strong today. Wisconsin's vote didn't just reveal labor's weakness. It also showed what big money can accomplish. Walker had more than a seven-to-one financial advantage over his union-backed opposition -- this in a state that was a labor hotbed in the 19th century.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's blessing for unfettered corporate spending on political speech, big business's grip on American levers of power is as firm as it was in 1890, Berman said.
But in the 1890s, workers were beginning to look to unions for hope. Where they will look now isn't clear -- but to the history-minded, the possibilities are chilling.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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