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A tipping point for labor in America

Op-Ed

It may not be overstating the case to say that the future of organized labor as a whole may turn on the willingness of public sector unions to make statesmanlike, farsighted concessions now.

February 19, 2011|Tim Rutten

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has released a fascinating poll that finds that people on the West Coast are far more likely to regard their states' budget crises as "very serious" and are increasingly open to solving them through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

Those findings suggest that circumstances and popular attitudes may be turning in favor of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposals to close California's yawning shortfall with deep cuts in everything but primary education and prisons, along with an extension of existing tax surcharges. More than two-thirds — 68% — of Pew's respondents say they feel such a combination offers the best way out of the state's budgetary difficulties in an economy 77% judged to be in fair or poor shape. Fewer than 1 in 5 people — 19% — think cuts alone can do the job, while just 4% think simply raising taxes is the best approach.

The study also finds that public regard for organized labor generally is at a historic low and that discontent with public sector pensions and benefits is rising. In fact, when Pew asked respondents to rank their budget reduction preferences, the "pension plans of government employees" topped the list by 16 percentage points, ahead of cutting funding for colleges and universities and road and transportation expenditures, which tied for second, 10 percentage points ahead of cuts in healthcare.

Still, like Wisconsin, California is a state in which organized labor continues to enjoy a strong presence and broad support. But, if something like the current meltdown in Madison is to be avoided here, our public employee unions will have to accept rollbacks or find themselves increasingly marginalized.

It may not be overstating the case to say that the future of organized labor as a whole in the U.S. may turn on the willingness of public sector unions to make statesmanlike, farsighted concessions now. Here's why:

Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, has caught the attention of GOP deficit hawks across the country with legislation that proposes to strip most of his state's public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, opening the way to unilateral reductions in their pensions and benefits. The generally unremarked-on curiosity here is that Wisconsin's shortfall was created by Walker's aggressive tax cutting rather than the local economy. That hasn't dimmed other Republicans' admiration for Walker's union-bashing agenda. Similar bills already are pending in Tennessee and Ohio, with others moving toward introduction in Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and New Hampshire.

Other findings from the Pew poll reveal why this brutal assault on the rights of public employees is so quickly gaining traction. The survey, conducted this month, found that Americans' view of unions was almost equally divided between favorable and unfavorable. In fact, more people — 40% — have an unfavorable opinion of public sector unions than they do of private sector unions — 37%. Overall, the public's regard for organized labor is approaching its pre-Depression low point.

Even so, Pew found, "most Americans think unions have helped to increase unionized employees' salary (53%) and to improve working conditions for all Americans (51%)." The sticking point, however, is that Americans think unions are just plain awful for business.

As the survey concludes: "Those results correlate to a stunning plunge in Americans' attitudes toward unions in just the last three years as the economy plummeted into recession. In 2007, Pew pegged support for unions at 58%. Three years later, it had fallen an astounding 17 points."

Public employee unions can't be faulted for negotiating the best deals possible for their members. Union officers, however, need to recognize that their members' defined pensions stand out in an era when most private workers have been pushed into the equities markets to fund their retirements, as one employer after another has replaced traditional pension plans with risky individual 401(k) plans.

This flight from social responsibility on the part of employers is a national disgrace and, most assuredly, not organized labor's fault. But that won't induce hard-pressed and unorganized working people, whatever the color of their collar, to support benefits for organized public employees they no longer can obtain for themselves.

If public employee unions in California and elsewhere dig in and refuse any concessions or rollbacks on pensions and benefits, the only result will be a further diminution of popular regard for organized labor, something the country can ill afford.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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