Saturday, June 23, 2012

Public workers as Pastor Martin Niemoller

So the new public worker union leader, Lee Saunders, says unions are at a "turning point." And public sector employees wonder about the lack of sufficient solidarity among their fellow workers in the private sector.

Sorry, public sector employees, but unions were at a turning point in the 1980s, and most public employees and their leaders like you didn't give a damn at the time.

I know. I was there as a Democratic Party activist in the 1980s and up through the early Clinton years, before I went into the Reform Party with Ross Perot and then the Green Party with Nader after 1996.

Gerald McEntee, the former leader of the public employees unions in the 1980s and 1990s, was a fervent supporter of any corporate Democrat, especially Clinton. He gave hardly a worry about the hollowing out of America's industrial base and the decline of private employee unions. He didn't care that the NAFTA was a codification of the trends that were undermining blue collar workers' lives. As long as his public employees' union was doing fine, he didn't understand why any of us were so angry at Bill Clinton for siding with the plutocracy that was already rearing its horrible head, torso and arms. I recall too many conversations with public workers who simply did not care at all about the plight of private employee union workers. I met Republican public employee union members who said they hated unions and hated the private sector unions who said they deserved what they got for not being able to compete with peasants in third world factories.

Well, here is my inside message to public employee workers around the nation: First, the rich and powerful came for the poor in the 1970s, and public employees didn't care. They were not poor. Then, they came for the private sector workers in unions in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. The public employees didn't care. They were not in the private sector. Then, when the nation was reeling from the bursting of the last big bubble in real estate, after most middle class American workers ran out of credit after first running out of sufficient income to pay the bills, they have come for the public employees and their pensions and unions. But there was nobody left in the once thriving and now suffering middle class of workers to care. Hat tip to Pastor Martin Niemoller.

As readers of this blog know, I have not joined that chorus of private sector workers who attack public employee unions even as I have been in the private sector my entire adult life. I don't subscribe to the American cultural penchant of attacking my fellow workers for the good things they have. I believed in the 1980s, and believe now, the fault is with those in the elite corridors of power, both in the private and public sectors. The economic elite have reasserted themselves as strong as they ever have since the 1880s, let alone 1920s. Would that the public employees' unions more solidly supported their private sector union brothers and sisters 20 and 25 years ago, as I and a few other activists were saying then. Then, unions would not be as moribund as they are today.

Again, unions are not at a "turning point." They are already dead. It will take an even greater crisis to revive them, and as I have said, we lack a language of equality and socialism in our political discourse such that even young Occupy sit in students often talk the language of elite business libertarianism, not the language of Eugene Debs and Michael Harrington.

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