When Liberals Turn Their Backs on Labor, America Loses

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
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That empty, hollow sound you hear is the sound of the American Jewish community ignoring the big showdown in Wisconsin. Which is odd, if you think about it.

Normally, America’s most divisive political fights become divisive Jewish fights more or less automatically. Whether it’s about the Middle East, school prayer or abortion, we’re in the thick of it, arguing with each other and the world about what’s good for the Jews and what the Torah says.

Wisconsin is different. It’s one of America’s biggest political battles in a long time, yet the Jewish community is sleeping through it. You don’t hear squabbling at the men’s Kiddush club over bus drivers’ pensions or the Torah’s view of public sector unions. The only major question making the rounds is the old standby when all else fails: Is this a Jewish issue?

Hint: If you have to ask, it’s a Jewish issue, probably one we’d rather not talk about.

In case you missed it, here’s the Wisconsin crisis in a nutshell: The state’s rookie Republican governor, Scott Walker, says the budget faces huge deficits and needs drastic surgery. In February he submitted a so-called budget repair bill, which among other things trims state payroll costs by hiking public employees’ contributions to their pensions and health care. The bill also reins in the state’s public employee unions, restricting their bargaining power and other rights.

The response from labor has been volcanic: Tens of thousands of protesters crowded the state capitol grounds for weeks on end in what observers have called Wisconsin’s biggest protest rallies since the Vietnam War. Sympathy rallies across the country have drawn thousands more. All 14 minority Democrats in the State Senate decamped to nearby lllinois to deny the chamber a quorum and prevent a vote until the governor agrees to negotiate in earnest. As of this writing, March 8, he’s still stonewalling. The situation has been deadlocked for weeks and is getting uglier.

Deficits aside, money isn’t the real issue. The unions agreed from the outset to the governor’s give-backs. What they’re against are his proposed rule changes. The bill bars public employee unions from negotiating over benefits. They can only bargain over salaries, and they can’t ask for raises above the cost of living. Basically, they’re limited to pleading for the right to keep up with inflation. That leaves workers little reason to join the union. Which is exactly the point.

There’s more. Under Walker’s plan, unions can’t have dues deducted from employees’ paychecks — unlike other employee service providers like, say, health insurers and gyms. Nor can they require employees in union-contract shops to join the union. They’ll have to provide their service — negotiating on the employees’ behalf — on spec, hoping the clients will choose to pay for the service. Unlike, say, electricity or cable TV. The Democrats rightly call it a union-killing bill.

The question is, who cares? Unions have been declining for decades, and few mourn them. Sure, they once led the good fight against sweatshops and for decent pay, workplace safety, health care, vacations and pensions. But those days are gone. Union health and pension benefits are said to be bankrupting us. Wage demands are driving industry overseas.

Public employees are the unions’ last feeding trough. Private business has almost entirely de-unionized or fled offshore, but public employee unions can still roll their employers — the taxpayers — for those fat pensions that everyone else has learned to do without. Walker decided the time was right for the coup de grace.

And why not? Even liberals don’t talk union anymore. Liberals today have grander agendas — protecting human rights, saving the planet, defending minorities, reexamining gender roles. They’ve given the Democratic Party a post-Watergate makeover as a movement for social change and minority rights. Essentially, they’ve outgrown unions.

The funny thing is, outgrowing unions has been a disaster for liberals. And for Democrats, working people and unions themselves. In the 40 years since unions and the liberal-left parted ways over Vietnam and the counterculture, unions have declined from 20% of the workforce to barely 12%, including just 7% of the private sector. During that same period, the share of national income that goes to working families — specifically, the bottom 99.5%! — has declined almost perfectly in tandem.

How fare the Democrats in all this? Badly. Since 1968 Democrats have won four presidential elections to the GOP’s seven. Once the majority party, Democrats now struggle for bare parity. Fighting back in today’s politics means big, big money, and rich people tend to favor the GOP. As for mega-donations, Republicans get theirs from corporations. The only big institutions that can compete on the Democratic side are unions. Which are, as noted, sinking.

The cruelest irony is that the unions’ decline sabotages even the post-Vietnam liberals who think they’ve outgrown unions. They’ve forged an ideology organized around issues of diversity, identity, gender and civil liberties. The ideas may be worthy, but they’ll never fly if Democrats don’t win elections. And Democrats can’t thrive without a strong labor movement.

Nobody needs to learn that lesson more urgently than Jewish liberals. We’re more than just another Democratic voting bloc. Our story is the story of 20th-century liberalism, from the Triangle Fire to the Freedom Rides to the executive suites of Hollywood and Wall Street. The Democratic Party helped make us what we are today, and we’ve returned the favor.

Jews, unlike others, don’t become conservative as they become affluent. Jews retain the sensibility of the outsider, the minority. And so we are, perforce, the one sure pool of liberals with money. This makes us invaluable to the Democrats.

The downside is that as unions have declined and our importance in the party has grown, the party’s focus has shifted subtly from being the voice of the working majority to being the voice of outsiders and minorities. Which is fine, unless you want to win elections.

Wisconsin’s teachers and bus drivers are giving us a wakeup call.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com

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