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Vol. 75/No. 2      January 17, 2011

Defend public employee unions

Democratic and Republican politicians and the employers they represent are blaming public employees and their unions for the budget crisis of state and city governments. Everyone else is suffering, they say, why should “greedy” city and state workers continue to get good pensions and pay increases?

The labor movement needs to answer this boss campaign, which is aimed not just at turning middle-class layers but also union members against public employee unions.

Some of the more brazen big-business mouthpieces, like the Wall Street Journal, actually claim to take the side of privately employed workers against public employees. “In the private sector, union workers increasingly pay for more of their own health care, and they have defined contribution pensions plans such as 401(k)s,” the Journal noted. “In this they have something fundamental in common even with the fat cats on Wall Street: Both need their companies to succeed.”

The false idea that what’s good for the company is good for the worker has been used to derail the labor movement since its inception. Based on this notion trade union bureaucrats bargained for health care and pensions for their members alone, rather than fight for federally funded, guaranteed national health care and pensions for all. In recent years union members have watched these benefits evaporate as the companies that promised them simply declared their inability to pay.

Karl Marx, a founder of the modern communist movement, wrote in 1866 that the trade union movement arose not out of something “in common” with the capitalists but in opposition to the capitalist-induced competition at the heart of the wages system. Unions arose spontaneously as the only means to check the employers by banding together rather than letting the boss pit worker against worker.

But the trade unions “kept too much aloof from general social and political movements,” Marx pointed out, focusing on their narrow interests in each industry rather than taking on the wages system itself. He insisted the future lies in the unions becoming “organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation” and “acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class.” That includes the lowest-paid, the unorganized, those without papers, and the unemployed.

“They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions,” Marx wrote.
Related articles:
Public workers target of U.S. austerity drive
N.Y. governor vows pay freeze, deep cuts  
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