Anti-union laws spread in the United States of Austerity

March 26, 2011
Preotsters occupying the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, March 17.

Union supporters have taken their message of worker solidarity and resistance from Wisconsin, all the way to the White House. said more than 1000 trade union activists and students gathered in Washington D.C. on March 23.

The protests targeted a Republican Party fundraising event organised by several of Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers.

The fundraiser was held at the offices of major lobbying firm BGR Group.

Mississippi’s Republican governor Haley Barbour founded BGR Group, whose clients include energy, pharmaceutical and defence companies. said: “The call to action was organized by a wide array of supporting organizations to show solidarity for Wisconsin workers and to pressure Gov. Scott Walker to rescind the recently passed bill stripping Wisconsin public workers of their collective bargaining rights.”

Duzak said “more than 1,000 people then marched spontaneously to the White House. This was a rare scene — a labor rally in front of the White House while a Democrat is in office.”

The protest came as organisers from a huge range of groups prepared for a “day of rage” in New York against savage spending cuts being introduced.

The list of states that have followed Wisconsin Govenor Scott Walker’s lead and introduced, or plan to introduce, anti-collective bargaining bills is growing.

Reuters said on February 25 the list included Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas.

Amnesty International has slammed recent moves by several of these states to impose anti-union measures.

In a March 17 statement, Amnesty’s trade union adviser Shane Enright said “State governors must withdraw support for these measures which, if adopted, would violate international law.”

Enright said: “The US has an obligation to uphold the rights of American workers — including the specific right to organise and bargain collectively … The Wisconsin bill is symbolic of a wider attack on unions in the USA, where workers are facing an onslaught from the authorities.”

Amnesty’s statement noted that “under international law, all workers have a human right to organize and to bargain collectively”.

The report said the right to organise and collectively bargain are an “essential foundation to the realisation of other rights … As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the USA has an obligation to respect the human rights under these instruments and treaties.”

Images of 100,000-plus protesters surrounding Wisconsin’s capitol building in Madison on March 12 illustrated the depth of public outrage at attacks on unions.

What has motivated US workers to flex their collective muscle over the past month — a show of force not seen in the US for decades?

The reason given by lawmakers for the anti-collective bargaining measures being introduced across the country is the size of state and federal administrations public debt.

That the US’s national debt, which stands at more than US$14 trillion, needs to be addressed is not in question.

Rather, the issue is who should be made to pay for it.

Speaking to Amy Goodman from radio show Democracy Now! on March 9, author Naomi Klein said US workers understand this issue.

Klein said: “The reason people won’t take it [the attack on collective bargaining] is precisely because they understand that this is not shared pain, it is not being shared equally. The people who created this crisis in the first place are not sharing the pain.

“The injustice of this response is so blatant.

“The issue is this backhanded attempt to use a crisis to centralise power, to subvert democracy, to avoid public debate, to say we have no time for democracy … it doesn’t matter what you want, we have no choice, we just have to ram [anti-union measures] through.

“We’re seeing this across 16 states, it’s happening on such a huge scale.”

The US Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported in June 2010 that “between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation … compared to 25 percent for the middle fifth of households and 16 percent for the bottom fifth.”

In dollar terms, the incomes of the top 1% increased between 1979 and 2007 by nearly $1 million.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the bottom fifth of households enjoyed an underwhelming increase in income of only US$2400.

This dazzling income inequality was worsened by the tax cuts for the wealthy enacted under former President George W. Bush.

CBPP said: “Because high-income households received by far the largest tax cuts — not only in dollar terms but also as a percentage of income — the tax cuts have increased the concentration of after-tax income at the top of the [income] spectrum.”

In his 2006 book Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Noam Chomsky described the “achievements” of Bush, who was then president.

Chomsky said the Bush administration facilitated “huge corporate profits while wages stagnated or declined, along with huge tax cuts for the rich to redistribute wealth even further upward than before”.

“These were among the many policies benefiting a tiny minority and likely to create a long-term ‘fiscal train wreck’ that will undermine future social spending and transfer to future generations the costs of today’s plunder by the very rich.”

A CBPP report said the Tax Policy Center found that as “a direct result of the tax cuts enacted since 2001, [by] 2007 households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum received tax cuts averaging US$29 … [Those] in the top 1 percent of households received tax cuts averaging US$41,077.”

Despite these figures, the overwhelming response of lawmakers has been to impose laws targeting the working class.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said in a March 17 New York Times column that the US public have “been assured that spending cuts would do wonders for business confidence. But that hasn’t happened in any of the countries currently pursuing harsh austerity programs ...

“[When] Britain announced austerity measures last May, it received fawning praise from U.S deficit hawks. But British business confidence plunged, and it has not recovered.”

Krugman concluded that despite the experience of Britain, “the obsession with spending cuts flourishes [in America] all the same — unchallenged, it must be said, by the White House.”

Writer and editor Ari Paul noted in a March 14 article that a New York Times February 28 poll found “a majority of Americans say they oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and are also against cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits”.

Clearly the economic deficits weigh heavily on US administrations at federal and state levels.

But the response by lawmakers across the US reveals the divide between the interests of the people and the interests of those that govern.

It may well be the response of people to this “democratic deficit” that decides the US’s future far more than any economic deficit

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