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Labor's Last Stand in 2011?

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 12/13/10

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The stage is set, and the main actors in Congress and in the
corporate establishment are ready to perform, having rehearsed behind
closed doors for the coming assault on organized labor's most powerful
sector, public workers.

The final preparations were smoothed out in Obama's tax "compromise"
with the Republicans, which gave details of the drama's first act. The
tax plan purposely did not include a critical element for state funding,
called the Build America Bonds program (BAB), which allows
recession-sunk states to easily borrow money from the federal
government. In the face of enormous deficits, the states would be left
to drown. Reuters blogger James Pethokoukis explains:


"Congressional Republicans [and Democrats] appear to be quietly but
methodically executing a plan that would a) avoid a federal bailout of
spendthrift states and b) cripple public employee unions by pushing
cash-strapped states such as California and Illinois to declare
bankruptcy. This may be the biggest political battle in Washington, my
Capitol Hill sources tell me, of 2011." (December 7, 2010).

Public employee unions would be crippled by bankruptcy because union
contracts are notoriously easy to shred in the court system, where
"non-partisan" judges always decide against unions.

To further ensure that states will become bankrupt, yet another law
was recently proposed that, if approved, will keep money out of state's
pockets by making it harder for states to sell public bonds. This law
demands that states use overly strict accounting methods when reporting
their debts to public workers' retirement accounts, so that the state's
"credit worthiness" will shrivel (Reagan used the same trick to destroy
the pensions offered for private-sector workers).

Two birds are killed with one stone: public employees will find
their pensions under further attack while states will be refused credit
because of the new accounting methods. The New York Times explains:


"The bill gives local governments a choice: they can report [pension
obligations] the way the [congressional] members want them to report,
or they can give up the ability to issue tax-exempt bonds. That is, of
course, no choice at all."

and:
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"In the end, I suspect ways will be found to abrogate some pension
promises. But even if that does not happen, the trend away from
defined-benefit pensions is likely to affect most younger public
employees, as it already has their counterparts in the private sector.
The retirement safety net will thus become a little more frayed."
(December 10, 2010).

In summary, pensions for state workers are on the cutting board, to
be replaced by the 401(k) scam, while state bankruptcy will "abrogate"
[abolish] union contracts. But as it stands now, states cannot legally
declare bankruptcy. This minor obstacle is being handled quickly for
showtime, as Pethokoukis explains:


"Some Republicans hope the shock of the newly revealed [state] debt
totals will grease the way towards explicitly permitting states to
declare bankruptcy. Indeed, legislation amending federal bankruptcy law
is currently being prepared by congressional Republicans."

The current Congress and President Obama are intentionally creating a
nationwide anti-union atmosphere. The Democrats silence over the above
issues is in fact a signal of approval. In the same way that Obama
announced a federal pay freeze for federal workers, federal actions
towards labor quickly set the tone for how states deal with labor.
Right-wing forces are consequently given the green light, and Democratic
and Republican state congressmen will do their best to implement their
own anti-labor laws, to ingratiate themselves to the feds in the hopes
of promotion. The feds act as a music conductor and the states respond
as an orchestra.

This dynamic is similar to Democratic President Harry Truman, who
began his own anti-labor presidency by presiding over a flurry of
anti-union legislation, which quickly opened the gates to Senator Joseph
McCarthy and other right-wing fanatics, who performed anti-worker deeds
under the grateful eyes of a Democratic President.
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Public workers are being targeted because they are the strongest
sector of the national labor movement, and their strength is
incompatible with the agenda of the political/corporate establishment:
making working people pay for the bank bailouts and two foreign wars.

The recession has already weakened public employee unions; unknown
thousands of workers have already lost their jobs due to the states
budget crises, which will be peaking in many states in the coming years.
Public union membership is being decimated while workers become
demoralized due to lack of action or alternatives offered by union
leadership. Teachers' unions are being twice targeted, having already
suffered under Obama's nefarious Race to the Top program.

Public workers cannot be spectators in this unfolding drama. They
must learn to act, collectively. Unions must educate their membership as
to the gravity of the coming assault. Resisting these attacks must be
done while proposing alternatives; state funding must be increased by
raising taxes on the rich and the corporations. If public employee
unions are busted, the rest of the labor movement will be targeted next,
but too weak to defend itself.

 

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Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)

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