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Attack on Democratic Traditions

The situation of US public debts is really dramatic. This indebtedness crisis is the result of excessive military spending and theneoliberal economic policy launched at the beginning of the 1980s. The republican attack has the goal of cancelling union rights. A progressive counter-movement in the form of a broad Obama coalition is emerging.

By Lee Adler, Otto Jacobi, and Lowell Turner

[This article published in: the journal "Mitbestimmung" of the Hans Boeckler foundation 05/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,  http://www.boeckler.de/107_113927.html. Lee Adler is a labor lawyer, Otto Jacobi is a visiting professor and Lowell Turner is a professor of labor relations at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.]

US conservatives challenge unions. The dramatic indebtedness of public budgets serves as a welcome occasion. However resistance is growing.

The US has lost self-confidence and is falling in a nosedive. The defeat of Democrats in the elections in November 2010 showed the great uncertainty in the population two years after Obama's triumphant election victory. The disappointment over the continuously high unemployment led to a protest vote helping the republicans who since then have a majority in the House of Representatives and are the leading power in most states. They successfully changed the fears of many Americans in the campaign against the debt-heavy state. The republicans promised to set the country on the right track again. The goal is a change of course - away from Obama's Keynesian economic control, from modernizing the public infrastructure and developing social security systems. They make use of a political prescription consisting of a triangle of populist patriotism, economic abstinence and power politics. The republicans speak of a return to traditional values but in truth march towards a modern variant of authoritarian rule - with a host of uneducated and cheap workers.


The situation of the public budgets is really dramatic. The European debt crisis pales into insignificance compared with the American debt. In the near future the debts of the country will amount to 100 percent of the GDP, around $15 trillion. This indebtedness crisis is the result of excessive military spending since the end of the Second World War and the neoliberal economic policy launched at the beginning of the 1980s. Under President Bush, the economy suffered with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the breakdown of the real estate market and the collapse of the financial markets. However only a few see these connections.

With their new majority in the House of Representatives, the republicans want to save $100 billion in 2011. Many educational-, cultural-, environmental-, health- and social programs are precarious while cuts in military spending are declared strictly taboo.

Nothing should be substantively changed with the military and the secret services. The republicans take much money and put their bold ideas of a slender government on the back burner. While civil society is weakened inwardly by the emaciation of the social infrastructure, further exclusion of large parts of the population threatens. Employees in public services are declared scapegoats who suck up tax money.


The confrontation with public employees and their unions occurs in states with republican governors. Most civil servants work for the states and their communes. Nearly all the states have budget deficits adding up to $100 billion. Filled with corporations raking in profits and its swanky-elite urban society, New York City closes schools for lack of money. A series of cities has already declared bankruptcy. The ranking of loans of individual states was downgraded. This situation forces a radical austerity course. While states led by democrats seek a socially-friendly balance aiding employees and their unions, states led by republicans foment confrontation with their employees.

The trailblazers are Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey. What sounds very harmless with Ohio governor John Kasich is undergirded with all conservative-populist creeds and outfitted with a full arsenal of anti-union weapons. One leading republican politician Tim Aplenty said in the "Wall Street Journal": "Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits and enjoying greater job security than working families forced to pay for this with ever higher taxes, deficits and debts."

Every dollar spent by the state for tax-devouring programs and socially-pampered workers weakens growth and investment-readiness of the private economy creating jobs. That is the political-economic credo. That spending for the military and secret services are regarded as system-stabilizing and not as waste of state money only scantily veils the contradiction in conservative thinking. On one hand, a society as free of the state as possible is emphasized. On the other hand, republicans thrown money at a state machine of violence that is greater than all military spending in the rest of the world. The republican credo excludes tax hikes especially for the rich since their spending is considered the foundation for more jobs. Converted to the praxis of individual state budget policy, this means cancellation of investments in the public infrastructure including the subsidy for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the American version of non-commercial public television, cuts in education spending and school closings, savings in health- and social spending and the release of employees, over 4000 teachers in New York City alone, higher taxes on pension income and wage freezes or limitations on wage increases to the inflation rate.

The republican attack has the declared goal of cancelling union rights. A power politics purging program develops out of a budgetary revitalization program. Closely allied politically with the Democratic Party, unions are criticized for misusing their political negotiating power to the burden of taxpayers. Republicans understand their election victory as a mandate to cut unions down to size.

Wisconsin, the state which in 1959 first introduced the right of employees to collective bargaining, is now revoking this right. Unions can only negotiate the basic wage. Negotiations over working hours, vacations- and social security contributions are annulled. Furthermore their acknowledgment as a negotiating partner should be confirmed in annual votes by civil servants...


Unions in Wisconsin react with mass demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands participate. The state capitol was occupied for days. However their action potentials are limited.

American unions are in a bad state. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced, the number of members fell to the lowest level since the Second World War. Around 15 million Americans are organized, half in the private and the public sectors corresponding to a share of twelve percent. The challenge for unions and republicans lies here - the distribution in the private economy and the public service is very unequal. In the private sector, only seven percent are organized in unions: 36 percent are organized in the public sector. In some states, the degree of organization in public service is much higher: 70 percent in New York State and 57 percent in California.

In addition the republican mantra of the money-devouring state is having its effect on union membership. In some states, influential unionists in political offices support restrictive forms of budgetary policy. In others, unions participate in rationalization projects. This creates tensions. It is even more problematic when individual unions show understanding for budget cuts of public servants with the argument they already had all this behind them and it was only fair when others were afflicted.

The common assertion that public servants are overpaid and showered with additional benefits can be empirically refuted. On a nationwide average, public servants without college degrees are somewhat better off than private employees. Workers often earn more in private enterprise with a college degree. However the regional differences referring back to the different strength of unions is considerable. Wage benefits like small contributions to social security and good pension benefits for public servants make a difference. Working hours and job security are also more favorable in the public sector.

The conflict is now fully underway. Unions pursue the strategy of compromise with money and severity in limiting the right to collective bargaining. In a flanking way, they try to make alliances with population sectors especially affected by cuts in the public infrastructure. They are worried about homeless children, support school lunches and promote ecological and technical education. They vehemently oppose school closings that lead to overcrowded classes somewhere else in mostly socially-underprivileged districts.


The workforce is deeply unnerved. What seems superficially a wage conflict between state employers and their public servants is in truth a conflict over the direction taken by the country. Republicans may realize short-term success with their rigorous attacks. According to the most recent poll, these could suddenly change into Pyrrhic victories. The (fundamental) party dispute between a backward-oriented "Tea Party of America" and a "sustainable America" is not yet decided. A progressive countermovement in the form of a broad Obama coalition is emerging. Hopefully the populist-conservative-republican assault will trigger an alarm call to defend the great democratic tradition of the country against the authoritarian attack.

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