News & Events

When times are tough too many people opt for union bashing

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April 2009 Edition

By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

involvement in the political process. This is nothing new. You have done an excellent job in your local city halls and at the State House in the past working on legislation, working for candidates for election and for contract campaigns.
There is, however, a new issue in the political arena that MNA members and all other union members will have to confront. It is an increase in the number, frequency and severity of attacks on unions in both the public and private sector in this country by elected officials in the U.S.

The public sector under fire
One would think that we are back in the days prior to the National Labor Relations Act when union activity was not “protected” the way it is supposed to be today. What really seems to be protected today are the attempts by employers and elected officials to attack the rights of union members and to force working people to give up benefits that they negotiated over the years. Whether it is the product of a faltering economy or opportunistic attempts on the part of employers to insist on givebacks, it really doesn’t matter; it’s out there and it’s growing.

Teachers in the Washington, D.C., public schools system are facing proposals from the city to give up teacher tenure as the city and union try to negotiate a new contract. The city’s new school chancellor has crafted this proposal—like others before it—to include a two-tier wage structure in an effort to split the union. To make matters worse, in exchange for giving up tenure, the school system is offering higher wages. To their credit, the teachers have rejected this proposal and responded that it will be hard to earn these higher wages if experienced teachers lose one of their only job protections.

In Chicago, public school teachers are facing public school privatization on an unprecedented scale as Mayor Richard Daley’s administration announced plans to close 20 schools and designated 12 more schools for “turnarounds,” a code word for privatization which includes firing teachers and hiring new staff. The teachers’ union, the CTU, has already lost 6,000 members and more layoffs are coming.

To make matters worse, as the current recession continues every state in the country is facing layoffs of public sector employees as services are cut or eliminated altogether. MNA members in the public sector know this all too well.

Unions under attack
The attacks on unions, however, take center stage in the U.S. Congress. As you may recall from the debate on the U.S. automaker bridge loan legislation in December, leaders of the opposition made comments like: “This is the Democrats’ first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election . . . Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.” Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, is on record as saying that Congress “has given unions too much power and now is the time to fix it.”

One of the issues he was referring to was an attempt by a portion of Congress to force the United Auto Workers members to take additional pay and benefit cuts; this on top of concessions they had already agreed to in 2005 and 2007 in attempts to save their industry.

Why is it that the success or failure of an entire industry is dependent on the workers/union members being required to take cuts in the wages, pensions and health care benefits that had been negotiated over the years by the union and management? Why is it that the U.S. Senate, while looking for victims in these loans, looks to workers for givebacks and not the management who “managed” these companies into the positions they currently find themselves? Why are working people the “enemy” in all these discussions?

The answers
An easy answer might be because we have allowed it to happen. We get the kind of government we deserve, which means we get the kind of representatives at the state and federal level that we deserve. People like Senator DeMint feel free to demonize labor and working people because no one forces him to stop.

If you think these comments directed toward auto workers were bad, imagine what he and others like him will say when Congress gets around to discussing health care reform or possible federal legislation around safe staffing. Be assured that the anti-union animus directed toward auto workers and teachers will be directed toward other groups as well, including registered nurses and health care professionals.

A strong national voice in Washington is going to be necessary to counter the arrogance and anti-union sentiment that exists in certain circles and only a strong national lobbying effort representing all unionized nurses can stop it. If we are to be effective in this economic climate and with this type of political opposition, all nurses are going to have to speak with one voice. It will no longer be acceptable to have nurses from a variety of unions and from various other groups talk to Congress about what is best for nursing.

It will need to be done on a national level with one clear message. It will take the same passion, dedication and drive in Washington that you have shown in Massachusetts. If nurses are to be successful in their efforts to advocate for their profession and patients, they will need to unite—and fight—in a way that they have never fought before.