The latest attack ad from Meg Whitman, right-wing businesswoman running for governor of California, targets public sector unionization. “Who can retire at 55?” the narrator asks. "As governor, Jerry Brown allowed state workers to collectively bargain. That’s why now they can retire at 55 with nearly full pension.”
Of course it’s a lie – a friend who is a public school teacher said if she retired at 55, even with thirty years in the same job (a contingency Whitman’s ad doesn’t mention), she’d get about half of what she will get at 65. But it’s also shocking that Whitman thinks she can increase her voter share by attacking not a specific bargaining agreement but the whole idea of collective bargaining. I’m not shocked that SHE is anti-union to her core – most businesspeople are. (Even KPFA radio, the first noncommercial radio station in the country, where I volunteer, thinks that now that they have to cut jobs, they don’t need to do it according to seniority. And the union leadership is supporting them because they or their friends will get jumped over more senior people.) But I was shocked that her campaign managers are convinced that the public is so fiercely anti-union.
Whitman’s people didn’t come up with that idea by themselves. They took it from the Tea Party strategists, who have declared a class war on public workers. The corporate interests funding and fueling the new populism have decided that they can turn the supposed (but mostly unseen) anger at bailouts for banks, BP and businessmen by turning it against unionized public sector workers earning a living wage and a pension when they retire. I admit it’s true that when my friends who are unionized government workers complain that their pensions are shrinking, I sometimes think, “At least you have a pension.”
But what is unsaid in this, like all the rest of the Tea Party rhetoric, is what lies behind the somewhat bland expression “overpaid public workers.” Like every other plank of this new populist platform, it comes down to racism. “Pampered public workers” is code for “unqualified” Black and immigrant workers, because the civil service has been the one sector that has been forced, by the use of the test and affirmative action, to be relatively color-blind. People of color pass the test, thus proving they are qualified, so they have to be hired if they are next in line. It’s one more example of the “logic” by which “elite” has come to stand for the most oppressed people in our society.
It’s not new. Remember that oft-quoted Niemuller poem? “First they came for the unionists…” That’s right, the unions were the first target of Nazism, which was also a pseudo populism funded and used by corporations. So maybe this would be a good time for Jews to come back to our progressive labor heritage.
The unions also need to take some responsibility. The biggest mistake the labor movement ever made was to stop organizing and start protecting. My whole working life has been in the unorganized private clerical sector. It’s always been equally frustrating to me that my coworkers were mostly uninterested in organizing and the unions were uninterested in organizing us. Some parts of the labor movement have recently started important and innovative organizing campaigns, mostly among low-wage immigrant workers at hotels, restaurants and piecemeal sweatshops. That’s great, I’m all for it, I have gone to many of their picket lines. But I have a secret to tell them. Most immigrant workers can’t vote. Please don’t misunderstand me for a second - I’m not saying to stop those campaigns. But I am saying that by ignoring the mass of citizen voters who are in nonunion jobs, the union movement may have dug its own grave.
Or maybe it’s not too late. If the unions took all the money they pour into electing useless Democrats and threw it into organizing, they might be able to turn the tide around. If they could tell unemployed workers in places like Kentucky and Nevada, we’re going to set up a hiring hall and you’ll be able to get a few days’ work every week at a decent wage; if they could tell workers slaving away at Wal-Mart or Starbucks, “You’re going to be (theoretically) able to retire at 55 yourself,” people might stop being so enamored of the Tea Party.
Of course it is an uphill battle. Destruction of the unions is the number one agenda of neoliberalism. But look at France. Three million people in the streets, almost the entire economy shut down, over the threat of raising the retirement age to 62.
Yesterday I went to a rally in Oakland demanding justice for Oscar Grant, the young man who was shot in the back by a transit cop a year and a half ago. This rally marked an extraordinary event: the ILWU shut down all the ports in the Bay Area in solidarity with Oscar’s family, because his uncle is a longshore worker. It represents an amazing organizing effort. On the other hand, there were less than 1,000 at the rally, which means that the unions that put their names to the action didn’t call their people to come out. In fact, none of my friends who are in unions were there, and most of them didn’t even know about it. One of the speakers made a call for a general strike. A friend who is newer to activism came up to me enthusiastically.
“Did you hear them call for a general strike?”
“Yes,” I said, “but it won’t happen.”
She shook her head. “I’m excited,” she said.
To her, I’m just a professional naysayer, which is hardly a role I want to play. So I asked myself, “Am I wrong? Could we have a general strike, like France?”
Of course I hope I am wrong, but I’m pretty sure that unfortunately, I am not. The problem with that call-out, like so many things here, is that people don’t get the difference between calling for something and doing it. A general strike isn’t just something you call for. In order to have a general strike, you have to have an organized labor movement. And that’s the difference between us and France.