Class war on U.S. union workers being waged

Letter to the Editor

President Obama has been accused of waging class war by recently proposing that the very wealthy pay the same income tax rate as working and middle-class people pay.  But the class war has actually been initiated by the right-wing Republicans and their corporate-funded Tea Party agitators.  It is taking the form of concerted attacks against union rights in much of the United States.  By undermining unions, the rich and powerful hope to hike their already large profits even more and get more pro-corporate politicians elected in national and state legislatures and to elect a right-wing corporate flunkey as President in 2012.  The well-funded attacks on workers and their unions are mounting but where there is oppression, there is also resistance—so the workers’ fight back has intensified.

In Midwest states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as in New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, and other states, Republican-controlled legislators and governors are taking aim at public employee unions, the largest labor sector of the base of the Democratic Party and one of the strongest forces resisting the profit-driven corporate agenda.  Union-busting is the name of the game.  The unions and their community allies are fighting back valiantly, mounting recall election campaigns and initiatives to rescind legislation like the anti-union S.B. 5 backed by Republican Governor John Kasich in Ohio. 

Under S.B. 5, which passed last March by a 17-16 vote, unionized workers could negotiate wages, hours and certain work conditions, but not health care, sick leave or pension benefits.  Opponents say the bill does not create cost savings and it removes or changes benefits that make public-sector work attractive over generally better-paying jobs in the private sector.  A massive petition campaign has placed Issue 2 rescinding S.B. 5 on the November ballot—and a majority NO vote would do just that!

In Wisconsin’s recall elections last July and August, two of 6 Republican state senators were recalled but this failed to give the Democrats a majority.  The state supreme court has also upheld Republican Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor law which had strong support from right-wing billionaires, the Koch brothers.  More than $35 million was spent on the recall races.

New rules relating to organizing and bargaining went into effect in Wisconsin on September 15, 2011.  The new rules spell out how and when public employee unions can gain state certification under the sweeping new anti-union law that removes most of the unions’ collective bargaining rights and undermines the ability to collect dues.  Most unions have scoffed at certification under the law, saying it was a costly paper chase designed to drain unions of money and energy.

“The certification process is just made to harass workers and their unions,” AFSCME Council 40 associate director Jack Bernfeld commented. “It’s a poll tax just to have the right to sit down and talk about some very minor matters with employers.”

The rules call for unions to pay from $200 to $2,000 per election, depending on membership size.  The law requires 51 percent of a bargaining unit’s members to vote for union representation annually in order to negotiate for cost of living increases. Nothing else is negotiable under the statute, which took effect in June after months of protests at the Capitol.  Many public sector unions in Wisconsin plan to continue to operate with or without certification, representing members through informal talks with public administrators and by speaking out in public meetings with elected officials, even though most are reducing staff because the law ended automatic payroll deductions of dues that support many activities.  September 22, 2011, is the deadline for unions to seek certification.  Union-busting Gov. Scott Walker has said the new certification process will give employees a choice and force unions to demonstrate their value.

In Florida, Arizona, New Jersey and other states, Republican governors and legislatures are making it harder for persons to register to vote, especially working and poor people, and senior citizens.  Restrictions on public employee collective bargaining are also being promoted. 

Last April 4, over 1,000 Hawaii public employees from the various public sector unions, plus private sector union members from Local 5, the Musicians’ union, and electrical and construction workers’ unions rallied at the State Capitol in Honolulu to protest the attacks on workers in Wiscosin, Ohio and other states.  The rally speakers urged stronger labor solidarity and the building of community support to combat these attacks on U.S. and Hawaii workers.  There were similar rallies in hundreds of U.S. towns and cities all over the U.S.

The National Nurses United at their recent convention called for a sweeping set of reforms to address the economic crisis swamping American families, and has pledged to step up its labor-community campaign to set a tax on Wall Street financial transactions to pay for the necessary reforms and repair some of Wall Street’s damage.

John Witeck
Alliance for the Quality of Life