The wrong message on unions

I was in Toledo, Ohio, last week, watching the labor union drama in Wisconsin unfold from a La-Z-Boy chair in a suburban home that was purchased, furnished and paid off by the wages of a factory worker.

Watching with me were union acolytes; family members who built comfortable lives in grocery store produce departments and on spark plug assembly lines.

They know the worth of union muscle and support those rallying Midwestern masses. They see the standoff for what it is: a political power grab; union-busting masquerading as budget-balancing.

But they also know the limits of union power, a lesson learned through disappearing jobs and downsized lives.


Their labor unions were no match for our long-brewing economic storm. They couldn’t keep auto plants from closing, grocery stores from rolling back wages or businesses from raising employee costs for everything from healthcare to parking passes.

Now they were watching from the sidelines as government workers waged a battle they had already fought and lost. In the brooding silence that settled in the room as the news droned on, I sensed resentment.

It was a familiar feeling to this visitor from California, where public employee unions — fat-cat bosses, gold-plated benefits and cushy pensions — have become a symbol, and a scapegoat, for our economic woes and political wrongs.


I know it’s not fair to scapegoat government workers. But I have trouble keeping my envy at bay when I listen to my state-employed friend ticking off an endless list of holidays.

“It’s clear that the sense of resentment toward public sector workers is real,” acknowledges Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. But it’s unwarranted, he said.

Traditionally, “public sector workers are lower paid, and they get a better benefit package than the rank-and-file worker and have historically had more job security. That’s the tradeoff they make.”

But that doesn’t hold true in California, where for the first time, the number of union members in the public sector is greater than in the private sector.


Here, state workers without a college degree — clerks, janitors, groundskeepers and mechanics — make at least 35% more than they would in private industry. California prison guards are among the highest paid in the nation, with a benefit package that borders on the obscene: They can retire at the age of 50 with a pension worth 90% of their salaries.

That is, for sure, an anomaly, but it is the kind of outrageous exception that shapes the public perception that we’re being picked clean.

“Union leaders need to understand the resentment,” Tilly said. “But I don’t think it’s constructive to say we should be leveling everybody down — to say ‘That’s not fair that they have [good] healthcare and a pension, because none of the rest of us have that.’

“We should be looking to expand the beachhead they’ve made, rather than pull them into the ocean with the rest of us,” he said. “Public employee unions have put up with quite a bit in the last few years: furloughs, layoffs, cutbacks in benefits.”


But that message isn’t getting out. Instead public sector workers have become a target for folks in the trenches of this busted economy, thanks to tone-deaf union bosses and weak-kneed politicians.

How are we supposed to feel, for example, when the Los Angeles school board agrees to a union demand and spends $35 million to give fully paid health benefits to part-time cafeteria workers, then lays off teachers, raising class sizes, and asks unemployed parents to ante up for the difference?

Those kind of stories are eroding support for labor unions around the country. Last year, unions registered their lowest level of public support in a quarter-century. Only 41% of respondents to a Pew poll had a favorable view of labor unions. In part, that’s because fewer Americans are union members. Fifty years ago, 35% of the nation’s private workforce belonged to a labor union. Today, that has shrunk to less than 7%.

People with no connection with a union are probably less likely to be sympathetic to workers’ demands.



But every labor expert I talked to argued that my family ought to keep rooting for the Wisconsin state workers. The future of the labor movement rests on the success of public sector unions. That’s the only flank of the movement still moving

“It’s not that public employees are so strong, but that the other unions have become so much weaker,” said USC history professor Steven J. Ross, an expert on labor and working-class history. “We’re focusing our resentment on the wrong thing.… It’s public money, of course. We are in a recession hitting the middle-class like I’ve never seen in my lifetime. So it’s legitimate to feel that kind of resentment. There’s a sense that these workers are privileged.”

But it’s time to take the long view, not use the economic crisis or state budget battles for scapegoating.


“Every industry that has been unionized has led to better wages, hours and working conditions for every other worker in that industry,” he said.

Ross is confident that the brewing battles over union rights will “lead to an upsurge in support for unions. I think you will see public opinion sweep dramatically back in favor of unions.”

I hope he’s right. And I hope union leaders understand that it’s a lot easier for us to cheer when you guys are hard-balling private robber barons than when you’re trying to pick hardworking taxpayers clean.