New Jersey's public employee unions are starting to fight back by doing what working people should have been doing in this country for years. They are taking it to the streets. The teachers were in Trenton last week; today, it was the police and fire unions. Who's next?
As glad as I am to see them take to the street, we have to face the fact that these rallies lack the unity and sense of larger purpose that the Wisconsin fight has had. Workers in the Badger state face the prospect of being stripped of bargaining rights, even after giving the governor every concession he has requested. The issue there is the basic right to organize and act collectively.
Here the talk is about saving pensions and medical benefits and preventing layoffs -- worthy goals -- but not necessarily ones that will connect with the larger swath of put-upon workers in the state. And not necessarily ones that will shift public opinion.
The teachers, firefighters, police and other public workers need to rally together over several days and they need to frame their demands as more than just protecting what the public has come to see as their cushy benefits.
The issue is the final assault on the compact that has governed American working live for 60 or so years, but that has been eroding for the last three decades. The collapse of the private-sector union movement, the labor movements disconnection from the larger social movements of its day (think of the bulk of unionists on Vietnam, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, etc.) and the general assault with government help by corporate America and presidents and Congresses of both parties has left the public-sector unions as the only strong unions in the nation.
The public-sector workers need to reconnect to workers at large, find a way to cut past the jealousy that has far too many New Jersey residents saying "take away their benefits." That kind of demand is short-sighted and will only continue the race to the bottom on wages and benefits that has American workers earning, at best, what they were earning 10 years ago, while the top one-tenth of 1 percent of earners -- about 300,000 Americans -- saw their wages more than triple.
Public-sector unions are not the problem. The problem is the lack of private-sector unionization and a legal structure that is decidedly hostile toward union building.
This is the argument they should be leading with: Stand with us now and we will stand with you later as you fight to revive the working and middle classes.
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