News & Events

Executive Director’s Column: Say No to the Race to the Bottom

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
February/March 2011 Edition

Executive Director’s Column
By Julie Pinkham
MNA Executive Director

Watching the media coverage on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to gut collective bargaining rights for public employees —including teachers, firefighters and social workers—helps bring clarity to the centerpiece of a growing feud about the direction we are heading. Who should have the final say about the costs of social and economic policies and how should those costs be shared between those who control the nation’s wealth and those who produce that wealth?

The class argument has now made its way front and center. But now the battle has been widened to include not just the poor, but pretty much anybody not in the top 5 percent of the nation’s economic strata. There is a bitter irony in the Supreme Court’s decision last year to treat corporations as individuals for the purposes of political persuasion while individual rights for those who wish to form collective groups for protection of their economic interest (i.e. unions) are rapidly eroding. In short, corporations can spend millions to elect officials to give them government tax breaks—helping to place Wisconsin in a huge deficit which is then used by the governor as an argument for not only cutting employee benefits, but eliminating their right to form unions—and to negotiate for those benefits again.

As one individual described the approach, “Heads I win, tails you lose” for the workforce. The uprising by employees and those that support them in protest at their capitol is refreshing as is the dialogue that is beginning to question why the general working population is facing the brunt and blame for Wall Street speculation and subsequent economic meltdown caused not by the workers, but by the corporate executives who saw profit and greed at every opportunity. In a fitting irony to the view from corporate suites, working people were asked to bail them out with our tax dollars, while those same corporate elites are now attacking working people and trying to strip them of their hard-earned rights and benefits. The lack of factual information is appalling in this regard. Apparently if you say something three times on the internet it is fact.

The fact is most public pensions are not Cadillac plans. Moreover, most public employees get them instead of Social Security. They do not get both and public employees are required to pay into the pensions. In Massachusetts, wages of public sector health professionals lag significantly behind those in the private sector. In large part, favorable health insurance benefits and defined benefit pension plans were the salve for this disparity. Over the past few years, however, the health insurance cost share is no longer markedly better than in the private sector, and the increasing cost share of public pensions have made these offsets less appealing and in doing so made public sector positions less marketable for the skilled health care workforce.

Most concerning is how the lack of an appropriate labor policy and regulation in this country has resulted in the low percentage of a unionized work force. Without unionization, there are no checks and balances on corporations and the disparity between the haves and have-nots widens further, helping to eliminate the middle class. This social economic policy is disastrous to the health and prosperity of the public. We already see the devolving health insurance benefits with outrageous co-pays bankrupting middle class Americans who are working. With $1,000 and $5,000 deductibles being pushed—on top of huge and rapidly escalating premiums—the choices are untenable.

How we approach the standards will determine whether we are to improve our lot and the quality of our lives. If we focus only on what we have in small fractured groups and evaluate our success or failure by whether our benefits are better than another’s and maintain the “them vs. us” approach we will all lose in the end. If those around you begin to see reduction in their benefits and working conditions, the measure of the standard for all is reduced. Soon the good benefit looks extraordinary and is the target for reduction as “over reaching.”

The concern, that others receiving a decent benefit will somehow reduce our power to create and hold better standards requires the belief that you are without bargaining power. That is clearly not the case for nurses. You not only have significant bargaining power but you have tremendous public respect. As a result, if there is any organized group that should raise the larger social and economic issues questioning the efficacy of what is happening to union rights of the general work force against the money and power of the corporations—the robber barons of the 21st century—it should, and must be, nurses. So if you have not been following the Wisconsin struggle, do so. If you have not been following a similar assault on worker’s rights in New Hampshire, you should be.

This is a golden opportunity for working people in our country, especially nurses, to raise the level of debate and to stand up and take on the corporate interests for the good of all of us. It is time to get involved and organize for a better future. Now!