The Scott Walker victory in Wisconsin this week showed just how unpopular public employee unions have become in the US.
Nearly four out of ten voters who have a union member in their household still voted in favor of Walker, the Republican who shredded collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.
This is speculation, but I would bet you a cup of coffee that many of those “union households” who went Republican weren’t from families with ties to government work.
The reason? Public sector workers have continued to win contracts that bring solidly middle class benefits, while the rest of the unionized (and non-unionized) work force has seen sharp declines in wages and benefits.
Even within the labor movement there is growing tension over this disparity.
After all, a big chunk of those government worker wages and benefits aren’t paid by corporations or by rich folks’ income taxes.
They’re paid through property taxes, which is (depending on your point of view) either a perfectly fair flat tax or a really unfair regressive tax.
Whatever your political leanings, the result is that means middle- and working-class homeowners pay the same rate as the one percenters.
The result has been huge tax pressure on precisely those families who can least afford it, and on families who are seeing their own quality of life erode. That is a formula for severe resentment.
And we’re seeing that conflict play out here in the North Country and across the US.
In Democratic New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s popularity soared after repeated confrontations with public sector unions. Voters in relatively liberal California have also been voting eagerly to curtail pension benefits for public workers.
One interesting factor here is that a growing number of Democrats are leading the “fight” against public employees and their benefits. This from the Wall Street Journal.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat elected in 2006, blamed cuts in city services such as library hours and police staffing largely on rising pension costs. … ‘Now that we are getting control of retirement costs, we can cautiously start to restore services,’ Mr. Reed said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a former top Obama administration official — is also locked in a pitched fight with public sector workers.
This week, the Washington Post urged the leaders of public employee unions to heed these warning signs and come back to the bargaining table.
They would do better to engage governments in a good-faith effort to restructure and preserve public services for the long term. States and localities face genuine financial problems, and the unions share responsibility for them.
Interestingly, I head a similar message this week when I spoke to unionized workers at the Horace Nye nursing home in Elizabethtown, which was sold by the county on Monday as an effort to cut costs.
Shawna Barber, a nurse from Mineville, said there was strong support among employees talking with county leaders and accepting concessions.
“We tried to, we talked to the union about that. We were willing over there to give up anything we had to give up. And because this county’s a whole union, they would not let us do it,” she said.
Unions argue that these kinds of cuts reflect a race to the bottom in a society where income inequality between the wealthy one percent and the rest of us is emerging as a defining factor in public life. There’s some real truth to this.
But sometimes political truth is far more powerful and immediate than statistical truth.
When people pay their property taxes every year, they don’t feel pinched by the rich and the super-rich. When they see their services being cut, while paying more in taxes, they don’t blame Donald Trump or the Koch brothers.
They feel like they’re being fleeced by the teachers, prison guards and highway workers who live right next door and who are experiencing a significantly better quality of life.