We’ve all heard that the struggle in Wisconsin continues – now with a challenged judicial restraining order, and efforts to recall Republican legislators underway all over the state. For what it’s worth, I had intended to continue posting small Wisconsin roundups but was repeatedly overtaken by events – and by events, I mostly mean the assault on what’s left of the American labor movement that has now spread to many other states, including Illinois.
And, for the record, calling this an assault on what’s left of the labor movement is, unfortunately, dead on. It isn’t news that the American labor movement is in serious decline. Back in 1945, 36% of all American workers belonged to Unions; this included 33.9% of private sector employees, and 9.8% of public sector employees. Fast forward to 2011, and less than 12% of American workers are Union members. Additionally, the composition of that total has flip-flopped from what it once was; now including 36.2% of public sector employees and just 6.9% of private sector employees. At this point the NEA and the AFT – the two largest Unions representing teachers and education employees – together account for more than one quarter of all Union members in the United States.
The logic implicit in these numbers is not lost on our enemies: If you want to weaken or destroy what’s left of the American Labor movement, you have to attack the public sector Unions. And to effectively go after the organized public sector you have to target the two teachers’ Unions. As I explained to a group of suburban teachers and school support staff leaders last week, this puts a huge target on their backs. It also helps explain why attempts to vilify teachers seem to be so prevalent in the corporate media, as well as why school reform – at least as it’s conceived of in polite society – has an explicitly anti-teacher and anti-Union character.
So, in the spirit of those “You Are Here” spots that you find on maps in shopping malls, I offered my group of school employees this snapshot: The decline of the labor movement over the last 40 years has coincided with increasing levels of wealth and income inequality (which had actually been decreasing until the 1970’s, but now—by our own government’s calculations—have risen to actually make us “less equal” of a society than countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt). 98.5% of all key investments are in the hands of the top 10% of our population (the richest 1% actually own more than half the shares traded on Wall Street), while the face of home ownership – typically the biggest investment of working and middle class families – is being permanently altered by a record-high and still-increasing foreclosure rate, and millions more people are falling behind on mortgages that outweigh the value of their houses. Benchmarks of our economic growth have been decoupled from median income, so that the President can trumpet an economic recovery against a backdrop of near-record unemployment that touches almost every family, and an official poverty rate that now encompasses one in six Americans.
Through all of this, the growing influence of our corporate and financial sectors has allowed them to effectively partner with a willing government to write their own regulations. Massive taxpayer-funded bailouts have socialized losses while keeping profits in private hands, and corporations now feel confident enough to turn their attention to areas like Social Security and education. Cuts to public budgets at the Federal, State, and local levels combined with tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals amount to an upward-transfer of wealth of historic proportions.
And then, in January of 2010, came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the 5-4 ruling that overturned years of precedent and effectively opened the floodgates for corporate spending in our electoral campaigns. The effects were obvious almost immediately, as an unprecedented volume of corporate dollars began pouring into the mid-term election.
As I asked my group of teachers and support staff leaders: What should we logically expect from a newly-elected crop of Governors and legislators whose campaigns were funded by corporations? The answer—an astonishing assault on public employees (i.e. what’s left of the labor movement) at the state-level: Collective bargaining rights are currently under assault in 18 states. The diminution or elimination of pensions is threatened in 28 states. 13 states are considering implementing or strengthening existing “right to work” laws. “Merit pay” for teachers is being considered in 9 states. 17 states are threatening to outlaw payroll deduction of union dues. 24 states are considering new school voucher measures. Additionally, seniority, teacher tenure and evaluations, and health care benefits are being targeted in a number of states.
These coordinated assaults are the logical outcome of this unprecedented increase in corporate money and influence in our political system; that’s the bad news. The really bad news is that what we are seeing is only the beginning, and it’s almost certainly going to get much, much worse.
And the question of how to fix this is no longer as simple as we once might have assumed. While most of us have probably taken the idea of life in a liberal democracy for granted, the reality is that the game is now significantly rigged in a way that it hasn’t been before. This raises a chilling question – one that is as uncomfortable to articulate privately as it is unlikely to be raised by the official punditry on television news shows: once loosed, can this corporate genie be put back in the bottle?
The task of relying on traditional electoral involvement to try to identify and vote-in “good politicians” to push back this corporate tsunami is at the very least daunting, and at some point—if we haven’t already—we are bound to reach a tipping point where the corporate grip on our electoral system is so strong that efforts to reclaim it through traditional means may no longer be viable. (How do you tell your Civics class that we may be moving into a period of U.S. history in which the ballot box may go the way of the Model T, and where efforts to make meaningful change must take place outside of the electoral system?)
But there’s good news too; bolstered by powerful examples of solidarity and civil disobedience in Tunisia and Egypt, direct action has been a vital component of the battles in Wisconsin and many other states. And as much as teachers and other education employees have been targeted in these assaults, they have also been in the forefront of the resistance to them – partly because they are being targeted, and partly because, although they tend not to think of themselves this way, on a certain level they are seen as leaders within their communities. With that role comes a voice, an ability-, and a responsibility to fight back.
The key role of educators was apparent again over the weekend as British Unions brought together half a million people – the second largest rally ever to take place in London – to protest against that country’s public sector cuts and corporate tax breaks. And we really don’t need to look beyond our own history – to the struggles to end slavery, for Civil Rights, against imperialist wars, as well as the fierce battles that were necessary to create our labor movement in the first place – to find examples of how our predecessors fought to make change outside of traditional electoral routes.
It may be true that the events of any given period will always create some kind of ripple effects for future generations, but the scope and intensity of the assaults now taking place in our lifetimes will certainly shape the world of our children and grandchildren. Unless we are willing to doom them through our own inaction, we can’t allow ourselves to feel too far removed, or too cynical, or too cool. It’s time to put on a pair of comfortable shoes and hit the streets!