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You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we over look the worth and significance of those who are not in the professional jobs, in the so called big jobs, but let me say to you tonight, that when ever you are engaged in work, that serves humanity, for the building of humanity it has dignity and it has worth." – Dr. Martin Luther King, March 18, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee

The New York state legislature passed a bill last week by a vote of 194-1 to modify the state’s notorious "Taylor Law" that makes it illegal for public employees to strike. The Taylor law currently penalizes workers two days wages for every day on strike, high fines for the union and jail time for union leaders.

It is a little known fact in this country that there are two classes of workers: private sector employees who have a federally guaranteed right to form unions, bargain with their employers and work in a safe workplace. Then there are the second class citizens: public employees — particularly people who work for states, counties and cities — who do not have a federally guaranteed right to bargain collectively under the National Labor Relations Act or to work safely under OSHA. Those rights have to be provided on a state by state basis. Only 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed comprehensive public-sector labor-relations laws which provide collective bargaining rights to public employees at state and local levels. Only 26 states give public employees the right to a safe workplace.

Even those rights are often not equivalent to private sector rights. Most don’t have the right to strike — the most powerful tool that workers have to stand up to the huge institutions that employ them — and other states limit the areas they can bargain over. Federal employees, for example, as well as many state, county and municipal workers are not allowed to bargain over wages or benefits. Collective begging replaces collective bargaining.

But why should public employees have the same rights that private sector employees have? Aren’t they pretty much just bureaucrats who work in nice clean offices with cushy benefits?

Hardly.

I ran the health and safety program for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for 16 years, which means I became quite knowledgeable about what public employees actually do every day. And most of it ain’t pretty (nor is it well paying, especially where there’s no union): wading knee-deep through asphyxiating raw sewage in rat-infested sewers and wastewater treatment plants; taking care of our mentally ill in understaffed, under equipped, overcrowded violent institutions, teaching and driving buses in underfunded, crumbling inner-city schools; guarding the imprisoned refuse of society that most people didn’t even want to think about in understaffed, overcrowded prisons; laboring on the roads in the dead of night, mere inches away from speeding, hostile drivers; dealing with angry social service clients in understaffed, under funded agencies; dealing with the parents of abused children or inspecting housing in neighborhoods that armed police are reluctant to enter; taking care of this society’s poorest, sickest populations in understaffed, overcrowded public hospitals — in other words, doing the invisible jobs that this society demands to maintain the comfortable style of living that most of us take for granted.

In return for this generally low paying, often unpleasant work in some of this nation’s most dangerous workplaces, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act does not cover public employees . Although states were given the right to cover their public employees in federally approved programs, with matching funds coming from the federal government, only 24 states have done so. Over six thousand public employees died in the workplace from 1992 to 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They die in perfectly legal 15 foot-deep, unprotected trenches, in unmonitored confined spaces, on unsafe machinery and no one investigates their deaths, no one is fined and no one seems to care — except for their families.

Public employee unionism has a comparatively short, but tragic history in the United States of America – even through the early years of the 21st century, Tennessee, and Ronald Reagan’s defeat of PATCO in 1981 ushered in an era of anti-unionism that has continued unabated to the present day. It was only relatively recently – in the 1960′s — that significant numbers of public employees in some states first won the right to organize and form unions – "won," meaning that this right was not bestowed upon them, but rather fought for and won – state by state, and sometimes city by city and county by county — initially through illegal strikes, pickets and job actions, and later through political action. Public employees won a 40 hour work week, pension and health care benefits and workers compensation years and sometimes decades after private sector employees – and not until they had organized into unions. Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968 supporting the rights of a small garbage workers local in Memphis, Tenessee, who striking to to organize a union

Instead of laws, some public employees only have collective bargaining rights through executive orders provided by sympathetic governors — orders subject to repeal when a new governor is elected, especially if public employee unions have had the audacity of actually trying to have a voice in determining their working conditions, or – God forbid – participating in the political process. What the states giveth, they can take away. The first action of newly-elected Missouri Governor Matt Blunt in January 2005 was to rescind collective bargaining rights for Missouri state employees and declare that union contracts signed during the administration of former Governor Bob Holden were unenforceable. Holden had signed an executive order providing collective bargaining rights to public employees in 2001. Missouri pubic employees also aren’t covered by OSHA laws and have no right to work in a safe workplace.

Only a week later, newly elected Governor Mitch Daniels did the same thing to Indiana public employees.

Daniels said those restrictions [bargained by the union] are especially troublesome for child welfare programs, whose structure could not be changed without significant notice to unions.

He also said anecdotal evidence abounds that union representation has hurt employee performance and public safety. Without specifics, he cited a "real world example" where union grievance procedures kept a snowplow driver on the road despite multiple failures on drug screens.

"It really encumbers the ability of state government to make the changes it needs to make," he said of the bargaining agreements.

What was lost when public employee collective bargaining was abolished? In Indiana, collective bargaining had

helped employees access their vacation time, establish seniority rights, gain access to job training and additional education, and achieve some of the highest wage increases in the nation. Some workers saw as much as a 20 percent pay increase in one year.

"Before [former Governor Evan Bayh's Executive Order], management and labor were always bumping heads. The atmosphere was just horrible," says [Indiana AFSCME Executive Director David] Warrick. "The biggest notable change has been that the us versus them attitudes had just eroded away, and we had gotten to a place where we worked together for common goals."

But beyond the pay raises, the due-process guarantees and the improved safety conditions, the most valuable "benefit" that public employees won when they received collective bargaining rights was an almost palpable sense of dignity — management now had to address them as equals, had to provide due process — along with the assurance that they had the union to fight for them.

Today, unionized public employees are one of the last bastions of workers who still enjoy decent health care, pensions, pay and unionization. In 2005, 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers in the United States belonged to unions. But only 7.8 percent of private sector workers are unionized, while 36.5 percent of government workers belong to unions. For most workers, corporate American has succeeded in making the eight-hour workday, secure pensions, paid health care, job security and regular raises a thing of the past. And the fact that there are still large numbers of workers out there who are highly unionized and enjoy some of these benefits that most blue collar employees once had, makes them a dangerous reminder of what once was, and could be again, should unions recover their former strength.

Last year, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went after California’s public employee unions with his “Paycheck Protection” (aka Paycheck deception) initiative that would have decimated the political power of public employee unions in California. The initiative ultimately failed, but inspired the Wall St. Journal to new heights of venom against public employees:

No other interest groups can match their potent combination of money, manpower, and geographic dispersion. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has proposed reforms (of public employee pensions, of teacher tenure) that California’s public sector unions fiercely oppose. And they have responded with onslaughts of negative ads, combined with noisy demonstrations at his public appearances, that have caused his popularity to plummet from stratospheric highs to abysmal lows,….

On the surface, these unions may come across as a benign presence in our midst. After all, they represent teachers, nurses, and other government employees who perform services that are valuable, sometimes indispensable, to all of us. What’s good for them would seem to be good for us — right? The problem, however, is that this is not even close to being right. What’s good for them is sometimes quite bad for us.

(The Journal doesn’t specify who they mean by “us.”)

Their crime, according to the Journal was that decent pay and benefits are somehow “not the same as, and may easily conflict with, what is good for the public as a whole,” as if workers — even government workers — are not part of what makes up the "public as a whole."

The Journal’s solution was castration:

There is no way to eliminate the conflict of interest between government employees and the public at large. So the solution must focus on weakening the power of public sector unions….by pursuing legislation that prohibits collective bargaining by government workers, for example, and pressuring for "paycheck protection" laws that require unions to get their members’ permission before spending dues money on politics.

Happily the voters of California persist in believing that their interests are tightly bound with the interests of public employees. After all, if they can take away the rights of public employees unions to participate in politics, can the same measures be far off for private sector unions? And if the public will tolerate taking away collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, why not do the same to private sector employees?

All of this brings me back to the revision of the Taylor Law and the New York City transit workers strike last Christmas. That strike, you may recall, was over a low pay offer and management’s attempts to weaken workers’ pensions and force a two-tier wage system (where new workers would contribute to health benefits and lose their (superior) defined benefit pension), and raise the retirement age. Despite the time of year, and the Taylor Law penalties, the transit workers courageously went out on strike. Following the strike, under the Taylor Law, workers were penalized, the local TWU union was fined $2.5 million, and union leader Roger Toussaint went to jail. The revision of the law passed last week would mandate 1% raises if a union can show that management is bargaining in "bad faith" in addition to half-percent hikes for every three months a stalemate continues. Workers who strike illegally would pay half the usual penalty, a day’s wages for every missed day of work.

The New York Daily News is apoplectic about the proposed revision, accusing the legislature of "dramatically" tilting the balance of power between labor and management. Newsday calls it a "last minute cave to labor," essentially accusing unions of blackmailing a timid legislature (including its Republican members) that faces re-election. New York’s Conservative party called the bill "an affront to all New York State residents." (As if transit workers were not New York State residents, but some kind of illegal immigrants.)

But the conservative media’s reaction is to be expected. What upset me most at the time of the strike was how many good “liberals” in mainstream media reports and on progressive blogs claimed that although they fully support labor unions and workers “in principle,” God damn them all to hell for messing up their Christmas shopping and breaking the law.

Following closely was the silent (or not so silent) resentment that organized public employees often have better pay and benefits that many private sector employees who are "better educated."

People fell into the trap of assuming that because most workers these days get less than the transit workers in terms of pay and benefits (thanks Wal-Mart), that the transit workers should face reality, settle for less and just be happy they still have jobs. But they forget the important lesson of this globalized world: in a race to the bottom, there’s no finish line.

These days, people assume that struggles like these — unlike any other human rights struggle in the history of humankind — should somehow come without any defiance of unjust laws or  hardship for the public. Personally, I felt bad for people walking to work though the frigid New York streets, and worse for those low income folks who couldn’t even get to work. But ultimately, the strikers were sacrificing not just for themselves, but for all of us. Workers in this country didn’t get where they are today (in terms of decent pay, vacations, 8-hour work days, pensions, health care benefits, etc) without struggle, often bloody, illegal struggles that may have inconvenienced or even hurt "innocent" bystanders. And much of the reason that all of those hard-won benefits are being lost today is that more people aren’t in unions and willing to put their jobs on the line to maintain those hard-won benefits. But make no mistake. If they can continue to get away with taking away some employees rights, the rest of our rights may not be far behind.

They were tired, beaten men, making a struggle that before they died they would stand up and be men. – Jerry Wurf (AFSCME President, 1964 – 1991), Memphis, 1968

 Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space.