Public sector workers need to be respected and supported
By the time this newspaper hits the press it is very well possible that the BART workers represented by SEIU, ATU and AFSCME will be on strike. This Labor struggle has come to be a microcosm of the struggles that many Public Sector unions are facing in the Bay Area, and it is imperative that the leadership and members of private sector unions support and show solidarity for these contract battles. Supporting these Public Sector unions is not only the right thing to do—it is in our own self-interest. If these unions fail to win, and are forced to accept concessionary agreements, it will have massive negative impacts on the entire labor movement in California, weakening all of our unions.
This summer has been especially active for many Public Sector unions that have experienced years of concessions that they made to the management of their respective agencies during the economic downturn. The unions realized that with much lower tax revenues coming in as a result of the recession, the wages and benefits that they had struggled so long for would not be affordable during the crisis. Unions across the board took wage cuts and freezes, and agreed to furlough days and a whole series of concessions to help these agencies through the difficult time.
Now, however, with the economic situation improving dramatically and the agencies’ revenues back up to what they had been, the unions rightfully argue that it was time to roll back the giveaways and at least get back to where they were before, if not make up for the losses. This approach coupled with a management emboldened by anti-union victories in other parts of the Country (i.e. Wisconsin and Michigan) has led to heated bargaining fights in almost every major public agency.
Coupled with management’s aggressive anti-union approached, optimized by the hiring of union-busting negotiators who are not interested in real negotiating, there has also been an anti-union media campaign. In the public eye public sector workers have been characterized as self-motivated with no consideration for the public and only interested in preserving their “Cadillac” health and welfare plans and inflated wages. There is no mention of all the sacrifices these workers have made in the last few years, culminating in lower salaries and higher workloads. Unfortunately, these public attacks against public sector workers have had resonance with union workers in the private sector, such as construction. I hear too often our members complaining about public sector workers not wanting to pay their “fair share” of benefit increases and expecting us as tax payers to do so. They also have a sense that these workers are spoiled since they “can’t be fired,” have guaranteed 40 hours of work, etc.
While I understand the frustration of our members who for the past few years have had to bear the cost of H&W increases from their wages and face massive amounts of unemployment, we must educate ourselves that having strong public sector unions with solid benefits packages is in our interest. Currently public sector union membership make up the lion’s share of union representation in this country in that two out of every three union members works for a public agency. As a result they are the ones that are driving our national, state and local political races and policy, and if they were to lose membership and political power we could face policy changes, such as the elimination of Davis-Bacon and state prevailing wage, that would greatly erode our membership and market share in the Construction Industry.
Last November, the Labor Movement as a whole came together to defeat Proposition 32, with public sector unions playing a key and driving role. If these unions are now defeated at the bargaining table, our opponents will be emboldened to take us on again to pass similar propositions weakening all of us. Finally, the wages, benefits, and working conditions of public sector workers should be the standard that we all strive for. Workers should not be subjected to the increases to H&W since those should be a right for all workers (regardless of public or private) since they should not be negatively impacted by a poor health care system or fluctuations caused by a market subject to the whims of private financial interests.
Public sector workers need to be respected and supported, as we expect them to do the same for our struggles. We need to understand each other and how we are tied to the hip. We need to educate all union workers about why it is not only in our own interests to show solidarity, but that it is our moral and political responsibility to fight together.