Saturday, February 26, 2011

Structural Crises and Union Busting

A very good friend of mine retired as a high school teacher at age 55, and lives on a pension/social security income that amounts to pre-tax around $55,000/yr. He taught for thirty or so years. Did he earn it? Sure. He's a brilliant and highly responsible man. He worked hard for his pension. But, writ large, unless we start to take back some of the massive amounts of money given the rich via tax breaks, he and his fellow retirees, including another very good friend of many years, are bankrupting us. Not he, but the great changes in the structure of the American economy, are to blame. Given falling rates of profit and the increasingly disproportionate distributions of income that are starving the middling and lower classes while enriching those at the top, moneys to the state funds are not keeping pace with locked in state pension and other outflows of money. The chief crisis hitting states, especially NJ, is tied up with state employee benefits, be they to present employees or pension/medical to those retired. (See, by the way, Matt Bai's article on Chris Christie in February 27, 2011New York Times Magazine. The article is quite supportive of Christie's complaints of union superpower. But take a look as well at the chart comparing state crises across the country. NJ is in real trouble. But look at Wisconsin!)

Anyway, the issue is structural, and requires a massive alteration in the way state administrations and employees do business. But union busting is not the way to go. First, of course, collective bargaining is a right.It ensures that employees, e.g., teachers like my friend, be decently remunerated; it protects them from arbitrary and capricious treatment by superiors; it protects workers from onerous working conditions, either by ensuring against them or, should something arise, via grievance machinery.

On the other hand, something may have to be done to ensure a separation between union funds and funding legislative and gubernatorial candidates so that elections are virtually bought.. But that must be true for corporate an other such funding. A new McCain-Feingold law? I know that's anathema to the conservative US Supreme Court majority, but it may be a way out. Let's remain with teachers and educational policy: I am the first, having watched the horrible decline of college preparedness of freshmen from 1965, when I started to teach at the college level, to now, 2011, to argue for a radical curricular reform, including more mathematics; more, and earlier, foreign language instruction; more reading, and of whole books; geography; social science, including political science, and history. Why have we a crisis in education? Who is to blame? First, the parents, who don't read and don't encourage their kids to read. And second, anti-scientific authoritarian and secular interest groups that have inordinate power to push their agendas. And next, the sclerosis caused by those in the Educational Establishment who are in charge of the curricula. Busting up the power of those interest groups and intransigent forces would be most salutary. But I would never suggest that those interest groups, or educational administrators associations or teachers unions be broken up. A strong governor could really set in motion great reforms. And he or she can accomplish much without destroying rights of workers that have a pedigree going back to 1932 Norris-LaGuardia and the NLRA. One need not be retrograde and reactionary to create real reform and to overcome a structural financial crisis. That's what statesmanship is all about.

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