Debate Forum Left 01/12/11

A Working Class Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

By Rana Odeh

Rana Odeh

How about we imagine for a moment what some of the characteristics of the American economy would be had we not had a strong labor movement in the beginning of the 20th century. We would probably still have a child labor economy, low safety standards, no minimum wage, longer work days, unpaid overtime, no workers’ compensation benefits, no unemployment, health, and pension benefits and unpaid sick leave, maternity leave, vacations and holidays. The issue is very straightforward. Employers are constantly trying to get more out of their employees in order to improve their bottomline, and workers are constantly trying to protect their rights to fair compensation for their hard work.

Labor unions have established the most important prerequisites for a strong social justice movement that promoted upward mobility for the working class in the 1950s and 1960s. The struggle for social justice, however, was not an easy one. The recent attacks on public service unions are yet another attempt to weaken the labor movement in the U.S.

The rise of Neoliberalism in the 1980s made it a priority to break unions and promote business-friendly labor laws. Unionization rates went from about 27% in the early 1970s to roughly 12% when the “Great Recession” began in 2007. In Ohio, the unionization rate dropped from 17.4% in 2000 to only 14.1% in 2007. Unfortunately, the leadership in the State of Ohio is convinced that a deterioration of labor rights is the right way to go. Governor John Kasich, for instance, favors a ban on teachers’ strikes and opposes the unionization of child care and home care workers. Governor Kasich and other union-bashers believe that impeding on labor rights is a good way to balance the budget. This race to the bottom philosophy is very short-sighted because it ignores the fact that when workers have good paying jobs with benefits, they build a stronger economy when they spend, buy homes, and pay sales tax, property tax and income tax.

The national decline in union membership has primarily taken place in the private sector. The public service unionization rate, however, has been slowly on the rise, and in 2009 it has surpassed the private sector unionization rate for the first time in U.S. history. This is why the current attack is concentrated on public service unions. The excuse being that due to the economic crisis, state revenues have declined significantly and that some major cuts in public sector expenses must be implemented.

This neoliberal attack has been quite sophisticated to the point that even some private sector unions have been manipulated to join their state representatives to call on public service unions to accept wage and benefits cuts in order to “save” private sector jobs.

The attack on service sector unions is flawed for three reasons. First, reckless Wall Street speculators caused the market crash, which has put a huge dent in pension funds. States are now required to either foot the bill to honor their financial commitments to their employees, or force public service unions to accept cuts in wages and benefits so that states can balance their budgets. A more reasonable solution, I would argue, is to make speculators pay for the pension funds’ losses, but also to restructure pension fund investments away from equities and back into safer investments in treasury bonds.

Second, state revenues declined because of higher unemployment rates and home foreclosures, both of which mean lower tax revenues from property tax, income tax and sales tax. It is Wall Street speculators who caused this problem, not labor unions.

Third, public service workers have better wage and benefits packages than their private sector counterparts because of the severe deterioration in pay standards in the private sector since the 1980s. De-industrialization, outsourcing, and the global labor race to the bottom are major factors that hurt private sector workers, but have left public service workers essentially unscathed. Instead of blaming public service unions for a job well done, we should be asking ourselves why it is that private sector wages, adjusted to inflation, have stagnated since the late 1970s when workers’ productivity has increased by more than 70% and corporate profits have soared by an average of 5% annually.

Public service unions have become scapegoats for a much larger set of problems that federal and state governments have failed to address. The root cause of the problem is an overall deterioration in labor rights, which has produced so much income inequality since the 1980s. What we need is a serious reform of the tax, healthcare and pension systems. All workers should be united to fight against the erosion of the middle class, and stand up for better working conditions for all.

Rana Odeh is a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in English and Philosophy.  Her research and writings focus on issues of race, class and gender.  She can be reached at

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