March’s civic strife in Wisconsin, with citizens and workers in the hundred-thousands protesting anti-union legislation passed by the Republican-dominated state government, suggests that, at long last, the spirit of rebellion may be migrating even to our politically somnolent shores. That fact alone—the unusually large-scale and active nature of the protest—makes it of particular interest to examine the roots of these events and the struggle over public-employee unions.
For reasons peculiar to the U.S., the assault on public sector unionism here has been led by recently elected state governments. But to understand this phenomenon we must examine it in a larger context, in which the state, in the general sense, is an important actor. For one thing, the events in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere are only local manifestations of a general, worldwide trend towards austerity budgets and the weakening of union power, a trend underway since the 1980s. Moreover, both the rise and the current decline of public-sector unions, like those of private-sector unions, represent processes in which the state has played a major part.
Unionization was always very weak in the U.S.; its relative success in the aftermath of the Great Depression was dependent on government support, in the framework of New Deal efforts to rationalize and regulate American capitalism, and in particular on the surge of government spending for war which ended the depression. This guaranteed high levels of profitability for corporations involved in the war effort, with effects on growth spreading through the economy as a whole, and both demanded steady work with few disruptions by strikes or slowdown and made possible the reward of steady wages and employment. Similarly, it was government action after the war—particularly the Taft-Hartley bill of 1947—that began the process of weakening workers’ unionization rights.
While the government spending that made a weak appearance in the New Deal but rose to a level able to produce the effect of prosperity during the war was expected to be a temporary expedient, the post-war prosperity, great though it was, was not sufficient to achieve a level of social well-being felt to be necessary for social peace by political and economic decision-makers. As a result, government spending continued to rise, slowly at first and then greatly following the recession of 1975, which marked the decisive end of the post-war Golden Age. As state spending came to pay for more and more of the nation’s economic life, rising from 27 percent of G.D.P. in 1960 to over 36 percent in 1990, government employment increased at the same time (though not at the same rate) as a share of the total workforce. This brought an increase in public-sector unionization, even while private-sector unionization was collapsing under the impact of government-supported employer pressure and economic forces, in particular the deindustrialization of the American economy. In the 1940s, around 35 percent of private employees and fewer than 10 percent of public workers were represented by unions; between then and now those numbers have reversed, with private-sector union density around 7 percent and the public-sector at 36 percent. It should be remembered that at all times unionized workers have been a distinct minority.
These trends, which are common to most industrialized countries, have been more marked in the US. What accounts for them? Some causes are institutional, and here the changing posture of the state, from support to antagonism toward unions, has been important, as has the long-term weakness, nationally, of a Democratic Party tied to the unions by economic support and canvassing for electoral campaigns. Union institutions themselves play a role here too, as contracts limit workers’ power by forbidding sympathy strikes, boycotts, and unauthorized strike action. While strengthening union power vis-à-vis their members, such developments ultimately weakened unions by limiting their members’ ability to win struggles and so make union membership worthwhile.
Other causes are strictly economic, as slowing rates of business expansion required firms to cut labor costs by moving production from union to non-union areas in the U.S. and then abroad. As unions responded to this situation by making concession after concession, it became less attractive for workers to go through the effort of establishing and maintaining union shops, especially in the face of government-supported employer intransigence. Public workers were in a stronger position in this regard than private-sector unions: not only was public employment growing steadily, but wages and working conditions were also negotiated with local officials, often elected with union aid. And of course, local government neither faces foreign competition nor can be moved abroad.
Nevertheless, the very weakness of the private property economy that has led to an increase in state economic activity has made it impossible to pay down the debt accumulated by non-stop stimulus spending since the late 1930s. This sets limits to the expansion of the state as an economic actor, as its expansion must be paid for by money borrowed and taxed from the private sector. Hence the growing sense of fiscal limits, first articulated right here in New York City in 1975, with a concerted assault on city workers as part of a restructuring of the city’s finances; generalized in the 1980s by the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; and now impressed on the consciousness of governments everywhere with the deep recession dominating world affairs since 2007. Even while making small-scale use of stimulus measures to stem the immediate effects of the economic collapse (particularly, of course, by maintaining the position of important elements of the finance sector), the world’s nations have moved decisively in the direction of austerity, cutting pensions, health care, wages, unemployment benefits, and employment.
Public sector workers are in no way the cause of the fiscal pressures felt by state, local, and national governments as the result of an economic downturn combined with growing public debt. Along with the poor, children, and other politically weak groups, however, they are being targeted by governments striving to direct as much as possible of a decreasing flow of revenue into the hands of the wealthiest people. To take a local case in point, if the millionaires of New York City are to be able to continue to send their children to private school they cannot be taxed, while public school spending must then be cut for lack of adequate tax income. In Wisconsin, it was tax breaks for large corporations like Wal-Mart that drove the state budget into deficit, providing the occasion for union-busting.
Although the idea of unionization is nearly as old as capitalism itself, its reality on a significant scale, at least in the United States, is rather recent. In the case of public-sector unionism it is recent indeed: unions of public workers were only legalized in the late 1950s. PATCO, the air controllers’ union, came into existence in 1968; it was destroyed by Ronald Reagan (whose election it had supported) in 1981. The social, economic, and political forces that led to the rise of labor unions have been disappearing for some time; current conditions, in fact, suggest nothing but the further decline of this form of labor organization. (To take a decidedly minor example, how long can professors’ unions remain meaningful when over 70 percent of teaching is performed by adjuncts?) Wishing for a rebirth of unionism, public or private, is as pointless as wishing for the return of either the private-sector jobs which have been vanishing in the developed countries since the mid-1970s, or the public sector jobs whose numbers the current recession is inexorably reducing.
The unions, as institutions, have already adapted to this situation. The U.A.W., for instance, has just abandoned its earlier opposition to two-tier wages, accepting that half its members in the future will work for 50% of the wages earned by the others. Faced with anti-union legislation in Tennessee, the teachers’ union is leaning towards making concessions on teacher tenure in an effort to preserve its existence. The Wisconsin public worker unions rushed to declare their acceptance of the need for wage and benefit cuts, calling only for dues checkoff—i.e., for their recognition as the agents authorized to negotiate the declining living and working conditions of their members.
At the same time, large numbers of workers in Wisconsin embraced the idea of a general strike as a countermeasure to the state government’s union-busting bill. The 97-union South Central Federation of Labor, representing 45,000 Wisconsin workers, voted in favor of such an action, and there were enthusiastic cries of “general strike” from the crowd that invaded the Capitol in protest. In the event, however, nothing actually happened. Union leaders discouraged immediate action, warning that public employee strikes are illegal and that workers risked losing their jobs—fears that the rank-and-file seem to have widely shared. Many teachers spontaneously called in sick but were urged by their union president to go back to work; similarly, when teachers actually walked off the job in the city of Sun Prairie, their union leader, explaining it as the result of the fact that “people are upset,” said he hoped it doesn’t happen again. Instead of striving to spread such actions and create the conditions for a wide-scale demonstration of workers’ indispensability to the daily existence of society, labor organizations directed their members into attempts to recall Republican legislators and the campaign to elect a Democratic replacement for anti-union state Supreme Court justice David Prosser, in a race that in the end Prosser won handily.
As long as workers can think of no way to contest the erosion of their standard of existence other than voting every few years or paying union officials to speak for them, that erosion will continue. Wisconsin’s strike fever suggests that as conditions continue to worsen it may well occur to workers, both public and private, that their social power lies not in the institutions of the capitalist labor market, including the declining unions, but in their own position as collective producers of everything that makes life possible. A small but concretely powerful example is the wave of militant activity across New York in June of 1975. It included a police protest that shut the Brooklyn Bridge, mass sick-outs by firemen, and wildcat strikes by sanitation and highway workers, all of which erupted when 19,000 workers were fired as part of the city’s financial reform: the layoffs were rescinded the next day. Once the union leadership regained control, they collaborated with the financial reformers in imposing austerity, including sizeable job cuts, while focusing on maintaining collective bargaining rights. But the success of the workers’ direct action is worth remembering, alongside the bitter lesson of their eventual defeat. For workers to take their power seriously enough to break free not just of union control, but of all institutional authorities, points far beyond immediate issues like pensions and wages, toward the need to create a radically new form of society. As things are going, this utopian idea seems in fact to be the most realistic way to confront even the immediate problems of capitalism in decline.
PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.