We All Live in Wisconsin

By Randolph T. Holhut

Conservatives heaped plenty of hosannas upon the memory of Ronald Reagan on the occasion of the centennial of his birth earlier this month. Few dissenting voices were heard about what a disaster his presidency was for our nation.

The list of reasons why Ronald Reagan was one of the worst presidents ever, at least until George W. Bush came along, is considerably long. The economic policies that transformed our nation from the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation. The illegal proxy wars in Central America, funded with illegal weapons sales to Iran. The demonization of government as a force for evil, and the delegitimizing of government as a countervailing force against corporate greed. The shredding of the social welfare “safety net” to pay for tax cuts for the rich.

These are merely some of the highlights. For me, one of things that I will always hate Ronald Reagan for is his role as union-buster-in-chief. Aside from labor activists, the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) has faded into the dim mists of memory. But President Reagan's harsh treatment of the strikers set the tone for three decades of union busting in America.

On Aug. 3, 1981, PATCO went on strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. Reagan reacted by declaring the strike a “peril to national safety,” and ordered the strikers back to work. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers complied. Subsequently, Reagan demanded those remaining on strike return to work within 48 hours or their jobs would be forfeited. On Aug. 5, 1981, following the PATCO workers' refusal to obey his ultimatum, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, and banned them from federal service for life (the ban was later lifted by President Clinton in 1993).

The irony of the PATCO debacle was that the union had endorsed Reagan for president in 1980. They were perhaps the least likely candidates for labor martyrdom. But, as labor organizer and writer Steve Early wrote in the Boston Globe on the 25th anniversary of the PATCO strike in 2006, the mistakes that were made in 1981 would haunt the labor movement for years to come.

“PATCO failed to build ties with the pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, and baggage handlers whose backing was so desperately needed during the controllers' walk-out,” wrote Early. "The lesson of PATCO … is as old as unions themselves: An injury to one is an injury to all. No labor movement can long survive, much less thrive, without a strong culture of mutual aid and protection."

After three decades of wage stagnation, longer hours and shrinking pensions for working Americans, PATCO's demands seem unrealistic today. But what PATCO sought was what their professional peers in Europe enjoyed at time, a standard of living that seems remote to Americans today.

Why? Because the labor laws that working Americans fought and died for in the 1930s have been gutted by the powers that be. Companies can fire anyone suspected of union activity, at any time, for any reason, and not face punishment. It has become almost impossible to unionize any workplace in America, and corporations like to keep it that way. They want to drive down wages and benefits and keep workers fearful and insecure.

It's tough to build solidarity in an environment like this. The winner-take-all, every-man-for-himself ethos of today's economy makes even tougher.

If you want to see the subtext for the ongoing fight in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states that are considering legislation to destroy public sector unions by eliminating all collective bargaining rights, it is this. In a nation where union membership is at its lowest level in nearly a century, public sector workers are the last workers in America that enjoy things that many workers once enjoyed — a livable wage, fair benefits, and a pension to live with a modicum of dignity and security in retirement.

As Robert Reich recently pointed out, Republicans aren't going after the salaries of the top 13 hedge fund managers in the United States that each earned an average of $1 billion (that's right, billion with a B). They'd rather go after the five million teachers in America whose salaries would be paid for in full if the earnings of the 13 hedge fund managers were taxed as ordinary income.

But Democrats haven't been much better. They give lip service to the rights of workers, and then take the side of the corporations and investment bankers that are destroying the working class. And too many white, upper middle class liberals and progressives have little or no contact with unions, or understand why they are still needed.

I am not from that world.

My late mother toiled nearly 20 years as a cook and dietician at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, until she was forced to retire for health reasons. She had a union card.

My oldest brother has been a janitor at UMass-Amherst for nearly 25 years. He has a union card. My second oldest brother worked at UMass-Amherst as an auto body repairman, and now teaches auto body repair at a vocational high school. He has a union card. I picketed the Boston Globe for fair pay for freelancers, and I carried the card of the National Writers Union when I did so. And the only newspaper I worked for in 25 years where I earned a fair wage was represented by a chapter of The Newspaper Guild.

From personal experience, I know that there is a direct correlation between belonging to a union and having a better standard of living, and not belonging to a union and being treated like chattel. And the argument is not that my brothers earn a fair wage as public employees.

Or that my mother lived five years longer than she likely would have because she retired with good insurance that paid for her cancer treatments. Or that most workers in America don't have these things. The argument should instead be why aren't more people fighting for labor protections that give workers the right to organize so they can be better compensated for their time?

The stakes of the fight in Madison, Columbus and state capitals across America is plain for all to see. The right is trying to split what's left of the middle class and distract us from the massive transfer of wealth to the richest 1% of Americans. If they succeed in smashing public sector unions and gutting the public services provided by union members, they will have achieved their biggest victory in three decades of class warfare against working Americans.

It's been fantastic to watch the outpouring of support from people of all ages and backgrounds for workers in Wisconsin. It's that spirit of standing together that drove the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and inspired others in North Africa and the Middle East to do the same.

This is democracy. This is America. And if we don't stand up together and fight for our rights as workers, we will surely all go down together.

Randolph Holhut edited The George Seldes Reader. Email randyholhut@yahoo.com. This originally was published at www.American-Reporter.com.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011


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