Labor unions have gotten a lot of attention lately — not much of it positive. Governors, including Maine’s Paul LePage, desperate to balance budgets have gone after state workers and their unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began weeks of rallies in the Madison State House when he proposed to end collective bargaining for state workers.
While the protests in support of unions have been large and boisterous, it is fashionable to bash state workers and what many perceive as their bloated benefits. It is as if state workers descend from another planet, collect a paycheck and then return to their alien world. Those angry about “overpaid” state workers never acknowledge that these same people are taxpayers and neighbors who spend their paychecks at local businesses and volunteer in their communities, just like their private sector counterparts.
Union members have pension plans that long were jettisoned by private sector industries in favor of 401(k) retirement plans that require large employee contributions. Their health coverage, generally, is better and cheaper than what private businesses offer their employees.
But instead of aspiring to the pay and benefits of union members, many members of the public want to drag union members down to their level. At a time when the middle class is collapsing — while the wealthiest Americans are amassing ever-greater fortunes — this is dangerous thinking.
Unions, despite their flaws, are the only remaining counterbalance to the corporate power that increasingly drives policy in state houses and the U.S. Capitol.
Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Walker was duped into thinking he was talking to billionaire conservative David Koch in a recorded phone call. Gov. Walker compared himself to Ronald Reagan and bragged of his refusal to negotiate, and he appeared to ask Mr. Koch for financial support for Republicans in the hoax call.
Koch Industries, which briefly owned the mill in Old Town before it was shut down as a paper-making facility, is the country’s second-largest private company. The brothers who now run it, David and Charles, have a combined wealth of $35 billion. Logically, they’d like to protect that wealth and their company, which a University of Massachusetts at Amherst study found to be among the top 10 air polluters in the U.S.
They founded the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which have given credibility to climate change denial, to the notion that environmental regulations are overly burdensome and that taxes must be lowered. Turning these ideologies into policy would benefit Koch Industries and the Koches personally.
In Maine, a corporate law firm wrote the list of regulatory reforms Gov. LePage now is pushing in the Legislature. The governor jokes about the potential danger of bisphenol-A, a chemical put on a watch list by Maine lawmakers. Members of his top staff have worked on behalf of the chemical industry and worked to stop the ban in the Legislature. Allowing BPA in products in Maine will benefit no manufacturers here and create no jobs in Maine.
Working Americans have more in common with union members than chemical companies and the rich brothers. If unions are broken — which Gov. LePage bragged was part of his agenda — the average working American’s voice will lost among the Koches and other wealthy corporate interests.