Thursday, February 24, 2011
What’s happening in Wisconsin could be seen as the final blow of deindustrialization. Deindustrialization was after all closely connected to undermining union power and undercutting labor costs. The global flight of capital began its movement from the North into the American South, because unions there were either weaker or non-existent.
As deindustrialization took hold in the 70s, union membership dropped markedly. Former union members lost their jobs, and others were cowed due to the lack of worker protections and took lower paid jobs. The retail sector grew as cheap goods flooded the U.S., but it was difficult to organize, partly due to extreme and effective resistance on that part of management.
As a result, the gap between the non-unionized and unionized workforces expanded, not just in terms of wages and benefits, but in terms of a cultural understanding of the necessity of unions. Support for unions has declined, as they have been seen by many non-union workers as ineffective, irrelevant, or privileged. Private sector union membership is now below 7%.
The exception to union membership decline was the public sector. In the 80s and 90s, in spite of Republican hostility, as manifested by Ronald Reagan’s successful attempt to break the air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO), public sector union membership remained relatively strong, especially at the state level. The public sector was an island of stability in an unstable economic world. Public employees held job security, health benefits, and pensions, as those things became increasingly scarce within the private sector workforce.
Of course everything has its costs. Local and state governments had to pay the salaries and benefits for unionized state workers. But, in return, the public received essential services, from health care to education to bridge repair. Public sector jobs kept people from poverty, gave them the resources to send their kids to college, and, as a form of public spending, had a counter-cyclical influence during periods of economic recession.
One question raised by the Wisconsin case is whether an existential threat to this last bastion of labor stability will bring people together, in recognition of a common enemy, or whether it will create resentment and fragmentation, as in, “I don’t have mine anymore, so why should you have yours?”
According to a recent New York Times article, the politics of resentment is ascendant. The Times quotes several private sector employees, some members of labor unions, who are supporting Governor Walker in his attempts to dismantle the public employee unions. In the words of one woman, "I don't get to bargain in my job either."
But it’s not clear that the article is an accurate representation of what’s happening. There are other indications that solidarity between workers is expanding rather than contracting, not just within the leadership, but among the rank and file. Public support in Wisconsin, in general, seems to be moving to the side of the state employees.
It’s hard to reverse a downward spiral. When people start to lose, there is a tendency to lash out. And it’s hard to be optimistic, given the past forty years of labor history. But Governor Scott Walker may have actually crossed a line.