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In Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition blames public employee unions themselves for the defensive position they undeniably find themselves in right now.

Scheer’s argument is a mixture of right-wing claims that it’s somehow wrong for people to be paid well and a more interesting claim that unions brought these problems upon themselves by not cultivating enough public support.

The main problem with this argument is that it totally ignores the role of the right-wing, corporate union-busting machine in systematically undermining unions, especially public sector unions. Leaving that crucial piece of the story out of the op-ed makes Scheer’s argument much weaker.

Scheer starts by uncritically repeating the argument that public sector unions are overpaid:

Public unions’ traditional strength – the ability to finance their members’ rising pay and benefits through tax increases – has become a liability. Although private-sector unions always have had to worry that consumers will resist rising prices for their goods, public sector unions have benefited from the fact that taxpayers can’t choose – they are, in effect, “captive consumers.”

At some point, however, voters turn resentful as they sense that:

  • They are underwriting, through their taxes, a level of salary and benefits for government employment that is better than what they and their families have.
  • Government services, from schools to the Department of Motor Vehicles, are not good enough – not for the citizen individually nor the public generally – to justify the high and escalating cost.

It is no doubt true that some voters are turning resentful over these things. But it is not the fault of the public sector unions that this is the case. Public sector unions have consistently led the charge for better public services, from the DMV to schools. It makes as much sense to blame the teacher for the lack of funding for K-12 schools as it does to blame the call center staffer at Comcast for the company’s poor quality of service.

Not only is it the job of public sector unions to advocate for better pay and benefits, it is economically productive for all Californians when that happens. Those wages and benefits fuel economic activity, including private sector activity, creating many more jobs than if the wages and benefits were lower.

Those wages and benefits should act as a peg for the private sector to match, a rising tide that can lift all boats. In an era of deflation, we need to grow wages in order to get us out of a long-term recession and purge the debt.

Of course, big corporations don’t want that kind of race to the top. They much prefer a race to the bottom, where everyone has low wages and barely any benefits to speak of, at least that aren’t paid out of their own pocket.

To advance that cause, they have spent a truly enormous amount of money funding a massive attack on labor unions. This effort is multifaceted and very well thought out. It includes think tanks that create and deliver messaging against unions, legal firms that specialize in suing unions over even the slightest paperwork error, and of course, funding anti-union ballot initiatives and anti-union politicians.

That necessitated a response strategy on the part of labor – in both the public and private sector – that focused on the ballot and the state legislature here in California, in order to hold back that right-wing tide. Scheer criticizes this as well, but in the absence of any acknowledgement of the right-wing attack on unions, he makes it sound like a shift designed shut the public out:

But the unions switched strategies. Although the change was gradual, by the 1990s, California’s government unions had decided that, rather than cultivate voter support for their objectives, they could exert more influence in the Legislature and in the political process generally, by lavishing campaign contributions on lawmakers. Adopting the tactics of other special-interest groups, government unions paid lip service to democratic principles while excelling at the fundamentally anti-democratic strategy of writing checks to legislators, their election committees and political action committees.

There’s nothing “anti-democratic” about this. Unions are democratic institutions, and are collections of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of Californians. Unions aren’t some alien special interest working against the people of California – they are the people of California.

And when that message is delivered by unions, it resonates. Scheer claims that public sector unions have stopped “cultivating voter support for their objectives” since the 1990s, but that fails to explain the 2005 special election. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s right-wing proposals were crushed by the public sector unions, who came together and framed the initiatives as teachers, nurses and firefighters against what had been a popular governor. Californians responded very favorably to this messaging, agreeing that those vital public service workers did not deserve to be attacked in this way, and voted down all of Arnold’s proposals.

Not enough was done to consolidate that victory. Under constant right-wing fire, unions kept having to fight in courts and in legislatures to protect their workers. More needed to be done, and still needs to be done, to deliver pro-worker framing and messaging to the voters. But it’s difficult to do in the face of a well-funded right-wing onslaught.

It also doesn’t help when some large unions, like SEIU, decide to turn on their own union locals and destroy progressive power, as they did when they moved to trustee the United Healthcare Workers-West, a union that had done an excellent job using its organizing to build political activism.

Here in the depths of the recession, the public employee unions are indeed on the defensive, and certainly do need to explore new tactics. Some of them are already doing this. The California Federation of Teachers launched their March for California’s Future earlier this year specifically to generate and consolidate public support for teachers and public schools. The California Faculty Association has been very active in helping organize and support student activism on our college campuses. CFT has joined with AFSCME to help put an initiative on the ballot to restore majority rule to the budget process.

More needs to be done. And the unions seem to know that, and are beginning to respond. The California Teachers Association is perhaps the most important union in this regard. Despite widespread public outrage at K-12 budget cuts, and a total lack of public support for the radical experiments the so-called “education reformers” are trying to conduct on students, K-12 schools have been battered during this recession. And teachers’ unions are often used to justify these extreme cuts and unproven reforms.

CTA was perhaps the classic example of a public sector union that played the insider game. For many years they played it very well. But they also understood the need to mobilize the public, which they did in 2005. However, they need to spend a lot more time now cultivating public support for teachers, by stoking outrage at cuts and by mobilizing public reaction against the Wall Street-backed “education reform” movement, which is really nothing more than privatization in disguise.

That doesn’t justify Scheer’s argument, because Scheer ignored the fact that unions like CTA have very little room to maneuver in the face of a right-wing shock doctrine assault on public services, using public sector unions as a bogeyman to justify these unpopular cuts and unwanted reforms.

In California we’re already seeing labor reach out to progressive activists. The kind of labor/netroots coalition that nearly beat Blanche Lincoln can come together in this state in support of progressive candidates and to articulate progressive values and messages to mobilize the public to respond to the right-wing assault on all workers.

Such a movement is going to be increasingly necessary if we are to stop the slide into long-term recession and stagnation here in California. Unions are an indispensable part of progressive power, and a vital piece of our economic recovery strategy.

Robert Cruickshank is the Public Policy Director at the Courage Campaign.