“More cheese, less sleaze!”
That was the funniest group chant at Tuesday’s rally of several hundred union and other progressive activists outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News.
Several “cheeseheads” were in attendance, their noggins topped by the now familiar wedge-shaped, orange hatwear made popular by Green Bay Packer fans. On Tuesday, they were out in the twilight chill expressing their opposition not to lactose intolerance but Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s intolerance of organized labor. (Unadorned by cheddar, I briefly spoke at the gathering as president of an AFL-CIO affiliated union, the Writers Guild of America, East.)
Governor Walker continues his obdurate opposition to the state’s public employee unions’ right to collective bargaining, despite a willingness on their part to concede pension and health givebacks he claims would help close Wisconsin’s alleged deficit. Meanwhile, there has been a decided increase on the sleaze end of the cheese vs. sleaze quotient, as evidenced in part by the prank phone call to the governor in which an online newspaper editor impersonating right wing billionaire David Koch elicited from Walker a proposed scheme to lure back, then double cross Democratic state senators who have prevented a quorum by retreating to Illinois. Further, when asked about planting troublemakers amongst the protesters, Walker told the trickster that he and his team had “thought about that” but decided not to. Apparently, all the really good disrupters are tied up in the Middle East.
But of course, this isn’t really about saving taxpayers’ money but consolidating political power. Walker and such leading lights of the GOP leadership as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Ohio Governor John Kasich, among others, have decided that public employee unions make great punching bags, effective scapegoats for an outraged electorate and a satisfactory diversion from the real culprits of this grim, economic melodrama—the Simon Legrees of banking and finance who got us into this meltdown mess in the first place.
As Josh Dorner reported on the progressive ThinkProgress website last week, “Instead of making the tough choices necessary to help their states weather the current crisis with some semblance of the social safety net and basic government services intact, Republican governors are instead using it as an opportunity to advance several longtime GOP projects: union busting, draconian cuts to social programs, and massive corporate tax breaks. These misplaced priorities mean that the poor and middle class will shoulder the burden of fiscal austerity, even as the rich and corporations are asked to contribute even less.”
Dorner cites examples: in Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer proposes kicking some 280,000 off the state Medicaid rolls but two weeks ago signed into law $538 million in corporate tax cuts. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s new budget calls for billions of dollars in cuts to essential programs and services to pay for corporate and property tax cuts of at least $4 billion. Rick Snyder, newly elected governor of Michigan, has asked for $180 million in concessions from public employees and more than a billion to be taken from schools, universities, local governments and others, most of which could be avoided if he wasn’t so deeply dedicated to giving business $1.8 billion in tax breaks.
Writing in the February 23 Boston Globe, Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters asks, “While there are legitimate and critical public policy issues about education reform, spiraling health costs, and pension liabilities at a time of state and municipal budget deficits, why is the fault laid at the feet of teachers, police, and firefighters? Today’s pension obligations are the product of massive investment losses, not excessively generous public pensions that, in fact, average about $19,000 a year. For that matter, a 2010 Economic Policy Institute study showed that, controlled for educational achievement, public sector workers actually earn less than their private sector counterparts.”
So instead of screaming about the advances public employee and other unions have made to preserve health care, job security and economic justice, angry voters should be asking what or who have been keeping them from obtaining the same. Nor does Wall Street’s pillaging of private 401(k) retirement plans justify tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye acts of covetous revenge against union pensions. As Erlich writes, “A generation ago, non-union workers often welcomed news of improved wages and benefits for unionized employees, recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. But . . . at a time of sacrifice and insecurity, many would prefer to sink their neighbor’s slightly bigger boat while wistfully hoping for a glance at a yacht in a gated marina.”
The American middle class largely exists because of unions; it would be a tragedy of Greek proportions if, in frustration, resentment and fear, members of that class were to turn on labor and bring about their mutual destruction. Conservative Republican governors and their associates are barking up the wrong money tree. Don’t reward corporate greed and malfeasance with yet more tax breaks and a blind eye to windfall bonuses. And don’t punish unions for whatever success they’ve had protecting members and holding on to an ever-dwindling power base of American workers. That’s just plain cheesy and sleazy.
Michael Winship is the former senor writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and current president of the Writers Guild of America, East.