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Latest News - June 2011

June 16, 2011
America's labour unions will play a tragic role in the 2012 presidential election
Source: The Telegraph
By: Tim Stanley

It looks like America’s unions will play a big role in the 2012 presidential campaign, but not in the way they might wish. From Wisconsin to South Carolina, they’ve emerged as a major campaign issue. Republican presidential hopefuls are queuing up to bash organised labour as the enemy of the common man and a roadblock to recovery. This is despite the fact that union membership fell to a 70 year low in 2010. So, why all the fuss?

An incident in San Francisco encapsulated the culture war surrounding unions. On May 30, Raymond Zack walked into the bay at Alameda Beach in an apparent suicide attempt. The water wasn’t deep enough to drown, so he stood in it up to his neck and waited to die. Firefighters and police were called to the scene. Not one of them tried to rescue him. Apparently, they lacked the equipment and training legally required to enter the water. The police chief pointed out that, “It’s muddy out there”.  Given the drowning man’s unstable behaviour, the cops were also “unsure if this individual was armed”; although the fact that he was unconscious made a shoot-out unlikely. The San Francisco police and fire departments watched for an hour as Mr Zack slowly drowned. He was just 150 yards from shore. When it was over, a local woman waded in and retrieved his body.

To many unions and liberals, the message here is cuts to public services threaten safety. Acting fire chief and former labour activist Mike D’Orazi blamed Zack’s death on a 2009 budget deal that slashed training funds for his department. D’Orazi – who received strong union support throughout – said, “The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable … But I can also see it from our firefighters’ perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy”.

However, some conservatives leapt on reports that the tragedy was contextualised by chaotic union-led contract negotiations and a crisis in management within the fire department. To them, it was a damning indictment of a public-sector worker culture that is obsessed with rules and regulations at the expense of individual initiative. Sure, if one of the rescue workers had entered the water they could have been injured or sued. But who stops to think about the legal ramifications of saving someone’s life?

In the Republican mind, the self-protection and self-aggrandisement of unions has made them into the enemy of the tax-payer. In Wisconsin, they’ve been painted as the opponent of balancing the state budget after they objected to legislation abolishing many of their collective bargaining rights. In South Carolina, they became the nemesis of job creation when they protested the building of a Boeing plant in a state that observes a “right-to-work” law (forbidding making membership of a union a condition of employment). Given the recession-hysteria gripping the nation, it is easy to understand why unions are so reviled as a special interest group Hell-bent on defending the interests of those in jobs against those seeking employment. In interviews, Mitt Romney has described them as the power behind the throne in the Obama White House, claiming that the President has prioritised passage of pro-labour legislation over job creation.

There are two paradoxes about the Republican fixation with unions. First, the labour movement is in political, not just demographic, decline. It has no friend in the Oval Office. Obama has backed a federal pay-freeze and did nothing to help pass the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. He is pursuing free-trade agreements in South America and Korea that will kill manufacturing jobs in the US. The President did eventually come out against the redaction of bargaining rights in Wisconsin, but probably for political reasons. Ironically, the full-frontal assault has bolstered labour’s position in the state. If left alone and ignored, private membership would dwindle to nothing within a generation. Public sector activism would probably wither under cuts and privatisation.

The second twist is that while Republicans hate unions, the new brand of populist conservatism loves union members. As a political bogeyman, conservatives imagine the average unionist to be a lazy, overweight authoritarian suing the department of education to raise money for their sex-change operation. But enter the realms of cultural myth and he becomes a hard-pressed steel worker with seven kids, faith in Jesus and an unpronounceable Polish name.

The fetish for the “ordinary union member” was on display in Monday’s primaries debate. When asked about right-to-work laws, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty started out sounding like Barry Goldwater. “We live in the United States of America and people shouldn’t be forced to join any organization,” he said. “I support strongly right-to-work legislation.” But then, in the blink of an eye, he turned into Dennis Kucinich. “For much of his life my father was a Teamster truck driver. My brothers and sisters, many of them are in unions – I was in a union. We grew up in a blue-collar town. I understand these issues.” It’s a bizarre pitch: union people owe me their vote because I understand how much their union is damaging the economy, and I will do the best I can to revoke their bargaining rights. There’s a certain economic rationale behind it, but it’s an awkward fit. How frustrating it must be for union chiefs to see conservatives appeal so shamelessly to their members, especially when it works.

The death of Raymond Zack is evidence of the horrifying paralysis of contemporary American society induced by the liberal state, imposed by bureaucracy and overseen by trial lawyers – vultures with business cards. But pity the thing that was once colossal enough to be called “big labour”. Every election cycle, Republicans attack it and Democrats betray it. Yet economic change and political disinterest between elections will probably eventually kill it. Big labour is a paper pussycat, eight lives down.



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