During the showdown in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to repeal collective bargaining rights of state employees has led to open conflict with those employees and the unions that represent them. My conservative friends argue that unions now make sense in the private sector, where employers are powerful and rich, but do not make sense in the public sector, where the “employers” are average citizens like Joe Six-Pack.
This very recent conservative conversion to the cause of unions — whose depleted ranks now represent barely one out of 12 private-sector workers, with their political muscle having shrunk correspondingly — represents a complete U-turn from barely a generation ago, when labor unions — then representing better than one out of three private-sector workers — constituted, according to conservative doctrine, a mortal threat to both American democracy and our free-enterprise system.
Let us stipulate that American labor unions are flawed, imperfect institutions (not unlike American businesses) run by flawed, imperfect individuals. Then we can also agree that history makes unmistakably clear that without the energy, passion and political clout of organized labor, United States workers would not have had an eight-hour workday, a five-day workweek, a minimum-wage law, paid vacations, health and retirement benefits, child-labor laws, or health and safety standards in the workplace.
Because of the ripple effect of labor contracts raising the hourly wages of their members, nonunion employees benefited with bigger paychecks and benefits. The rise of the American middle class in the postwar era was largely the product of the GI Bill and organized labor.
If you believe, as I do, that every worker is entitled to a just wage and a working environment that does not threaten his or her physical health or moral integrity, as well as to a pension and insurance for old age and sickness, then chances are that you agree with Catholic social teaching that workers have the right to form and join unions to secure these fundamental rights. Unions at their best can be instruments of solidarity.
At their worst, corrupt unions can exploit and sell out the interests of their own members, abet criminal activity and damage the larger community.
Which brings us to 2011 and Wisconsin — where, like all Americans, workers in the private sector have taken a major economic hit. From 1979 to 2009, the median hourly wage of the working American man actually fell 2 percent. During those three decades, according to the reliable, if pro-worker, Economic Policy Institute, the nation’s productivity — the expansion of the whole economic pie — increased 80 percent.
Where did it go? The bottom 90 percent of American earners together were rewarded with just 16 percent of the economic benefits, while the top 1 percent collected 56 percent of all the economic prize and the top 10th of that most fortunate 1 percent — about 129,712 privileged princes — cornered 34 percent of all the economic growth, or more than twice as much as the bottom 117 million-plus collectively earned.
Does it surprise you that this gaping economic disparity between the Incredibly Rich and the Rest of Us has exploded during an era when labor has basically been excluded from national economic policymaking? It shouldn’t. Organized labor frankly has been less than inept in making any public case for its own existence, let alone for the cause of its membership.
Nor should it surprise anyone that hurting Wisconsin citizens who feel their own economic security and futures under assault could be vulnerable to a specious argument that it’s somehow the fault of nurses, teachers, librarians, social workers and other public employees.
Understand that Wisconsin is nothing less than ground zero in the battle to strip American workers of their right to bargain collectively with their employers.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.