The labor movement: Unions and their “usefulness”

Adam Kranz

In conversations about Scott Walker’s recent power play in Madison, I’ve heard intelligent, educated peers suggest that labor unions have “outlived their usefulness.” This seems to be something of a catchphrase in the union-bashing movement. While I’d like to assume my peers have some reason to believe this, it doesn’t square with any of the most basic things I know about politics.

Being elected to office requires greater and greater sums of campaign funding every year. For obvious reasons, politicians act in ways that attract the largesse of anyone willing to donate substantially to their campaigns. Few among the lower and middle classes have the resources to be one of those donors.

For decades, unions have provided a means for workers to pool their money and political will. The success of this lobbying is reflected in many well-known labor laws: OSHA, the minimum wage, worker’s compensation and the 8-hour workday. The legal legitimacy of unions themselves as collective bargaining facilitators ranks high on that list. Hundreds of thousands of workers and their families fought, suffered and died for these rights in a titanic struggle that earned more freedoms and rights for Americans than any soldiers ever have.

Such policies represent the potential of union lobbying. They don’t represent the enlightenment of government. To expect the federal government to protect and expand workers’ rights when anti-labor, pro-poverty corporations are the only ones funding political campaigns seems incredibly unwise. And as recent events have shown, we clearly can’t expect state governments to do so even when unions are still major players.

Our government has been beholden to lobbying from the rich and big businesses for decades, at least. They have repeatedly shown that their interest is in tax cuts, lax regulations and a struggling working class.

In the present budget battle, all their wildest dreams could come true: In order to fund huge tax breaks for the rich and corporations, the working class which costs them so much money will be crippled, with no representation in government, no economic safety net, rising costs of living and falling wages. Most of the country won’t be able to afford shopping anywhere but McDonald’s and Wal-Mart — which is precisely why such companies lobby for programs that hurt the middle and lower classes.

I recognize that unions are by no means ideal. As is the case any time vast resources are concentrated in the hands of a few, there is the potential for corruption and an unhealthy focus on self-preservation and expansion.

Unions are no exception, and there are certainly plenty of cases in which union leaderships have hurt their constituents, their employers, and the taxpaying public. Such cases must be exposed and lead to reform or reorganization. Were there any reason to believe the Republican party was interested in reforming unions, it would be laudable.

Instead, the Republicans hope to capitalize on a largely imagined public resentment of public workers and their unions in order to cripple all unions. They are interested in doing so precisely because they know unions are often effective in impeding the interests of the GOP’s wealthy backers — and because they are often among the Democratic Party’s wealthy backers.

Rather than reforming unions to rid them of corruption and stagnant bureaucracy, thus enabling them to better serve their members, the Republicans seek to neuter them, and eventually eliminate them entirely.

Nor is it ideal that unions are the only organizations using workers’ money to advocate their interests in our venal government. However, in the republican plan, no one will be doing so.

Instead of reforming labor unions and tax policy to resolve budget deficits and advance the public good, Republican policies will increase wealth and income inequality and open the door for massive corporate exploitation of workers.

As long as present tax cuts are in place, budget issues will just keep getting worse. Labor stands to lose everything at a time when it should be working to resolve the nation’s economic crisis, restore fairness and balance to our economy and take back our government from corporate lobbyists.

Fortunately, people have awoken to the threat and stood up to fight. With this momentum, including student activism, we might just be able to accomplish something worthwhile. The present protests represent a vision of our country with a fair and healthy economy, a truly democratic government and a real commitment to a sustainable and just future.