A Very Special Kind of “Race to the Bottom”

No matter what happens in Wisconsin tomorrow, the conservative assault against unions is now open and unrelenting, and increasingly part of national Republican orthodoxy. In the once-heavily-unionized northeast and midwest, the prime target is public-sector unions, more susceptible to attacks on grounds ranging from taxpayer resentment to the common belief that much public-sector work isn’t “real,” or isn’t hard (an accusation rarely levied, of course, against unionized police and firefighters). But as former union organizer Josh Eidelson explains today at Salon, there’s a more nefarious “divide-and-conquer” strategy going on in places like Wisconsin in the assault on public-sector unions: resentment and envy among private-sector workers who never had or have lost their own unions:

While resentment toward unions has grown since the 1950s, it’s not because they got too big. It’s because they got too small. A multi-decade drop in unionization left fewer Wisconsinites who are union members or live in union households. Meanwhile, because governments are less prone than businesses to terrorize workers or shut down facilities to avert unionization, public sector unionization has remained more stable. In 2009, for the first time, there were more total U.S. union members in government employment than in the entire private sector.

[S]ome non-wealthy Wisconsinites side against public workers – not a majority, but perhaps enough to keep Walker in office. “I hear it a lot online,” Madison elementary school teacher and union activist Kati Walsh said Friday. “It’s, ‘You get more than I do.’” Meanwhile, said Walsh, “I know that I can’t support a family on this.”

So unionized public-sector workers are resented by non-unionized private-sector workers who then back the very politicians who want to keep them non-unionized, and for that matter, insecure and underpaid to the extent that job security and decent wages and benefits are an inconvenience to “job creators.” And the whole vicious cycle exposes the lie behind Republican claims that they are only upset by public-sector unions. As Eidelson notes, it’s no accident Scott Walker has been joined on the campaign trail in Wisconsin by the Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who makes no bones about her desire to rid her state of all unions once and for all. Walker and Haley are part of a very special race-to-the-bottom focused on reducing employees, public and private, to the atomized “independent contractors” they imagine to represent the ideal “partners” for business owners and executives: disposable at a moment’s notice, and deserving no more than a national deunionized labor market demands.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.