Professor McCartin, in USA there is a growing bipartisan consensus concerning public employees benefits and union contracts: why do so many politicians believe – or try to persuade people to believe – that those are a prime cause of government budget deficits?
Politicians from both parties have pressured public employees to accepts less pay and reduced benefits as a way of dealing with budget deficits. Public worker pay and benefits are not the prime cause of the current deficits. These are primarily the results of an economic crash. Politicians find it easier to put pressure on workers than to muster the political will to stimulate the economy or raise taxes on the wealthy. The differences between the parties come on the issue of public sector unions. Republicans are trying to use the crisis not only to pressure workers for concessions but to go after their rights to union representation under the guise of trying to deal with budget deficits.
What about the public opinion? Where does it stand?
The public generally believes that public sector workers need to share the pain during a hard economic time. But the majority do not support the idea of taking away workers’ union rights.
Let’s discuss about private and public workers. How are they represented by trade unions? Is there a divide between the two? If so what is the role of trade unions and how are they trying to cover the gap?
There is a difference. Private sector workers’ rights are guaranteed by the federal government’s laws. Public sector workers’ rights are defined by state laws. There can be a great deal of variability in rights from state to state. Some states offer limited bargaining rights; some none at all. Some unions specialize in representing public sector workers. But more and more unions have attempted to organize public sector workers (even unions like the United Auto Workers, or the Steelworkers) because over the last 30 years it has been easier to organize public sector workers. Only about 7 percent of private sector workers are organized; but about 36 percent of government workers are organized.
The Wisconsin case tells us that workers and unions don’t want to give up collective bargaining and rights, however conservative politics is pushing them into a defensive position. Do you think that this might change in the future? And do trade unions have any responsibility?
The Wisconsin case could potentially cause a backlash against those who are trying to take away collective bargaining rights. While unions are on the defensive, they have gained greater public sympathy than they have enjoyed in a generation. And their members are angry and mobilized. It is too early to say whether this can rally the unions into a resurgence. But it is the responsibility of the unions’ leaders to respond aggressively.
Do you see an international pattern in the assault to public workers and in the challenges that are battering trade unions?
Yes. The changing nature of the global economy over the last 30 years has eroded private sector unions across the industrialized world. This has left public sector unions more isolated than before and therefore more vulnerable to their enemies.
In a recent issue of Dissent Magazine you defined public workers as “a convenient scapegoat”. Can you explain us this concept?
During this time of economic trouble, it is easier to find a group against which to direct the anger of voters than it is to come up with ways of building a fair and sustainable economy. Public employees have become that group.
In the article we have just mentioned you discussed about the language used by labor enemies: you said that they have learned to master the populist language that was once labor’s province. What are the consequences and what kind of changes does that impose to trade unions current language?
Unfortunately, the word “élite” is used more effectively today by conservatives in attacking liberals and unions than it is used by the left in attacking the economic élite. Conservatives have become adept at turning the anger of workers who are feeling squeezed economically against other workers. The left needs to find a way to better articulate its vision in ways that connect to the broad majority.