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Why the onslaught against labor?

Across the country — in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana — anti-union politicians are taking advantage of their states’ fiscal crises to try to destroy the last bulwark of the American labor movement — public sector unions — by leveraging the crises to roll back public-sector wages and benefits and dismantle core union rights like collective bargaining.

Eighteen states are now considering legislation that would strip public-sector workers of their right to bargain collectively. Furthermore, since the November elections, anti-union “right to work legislation” has been introduced in 12 states. That’s in addition to the 22 states, mostly in the south, where such laws were already on the books. Here in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s attack on teachers’ seniority rights is part and parcel of the same national anti-union offensive.

The politicians leading this anti-union charge say their cities and states can no longer afford to pay public-sector workers what they once did. In some places, this budget crunch is real and severe — the product not of workers’ pensions, but of tax cuts, a severe recession and the end of federal stimulus money — but in others it has been overblown for political ends.

Why the onslaught against labor? New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg is threatening to lay off 4,600 teachers despite a $3.1 billion budget surplus and assurances from the governor that layoffs won’t be necessary, is a prime example, demonstrating the extent to which the current attacks on unions are a question of politics and ideology, not economics. Why is the mayor really pushing teacher layoffs? Because they will help him make the case for ending seniority, which will weaken the union, his ultimate goal.

Politicians long opposed to unions have managed to pin the blame for state and local budget crises, whether real or manufactured, on unionized public-sector workers like teachers and transit workers. They are isolating these workers and tapping into popular resentment of their rights and benefits among workers in the private sector, whose standard of living has already taken a beating. In fact, it is this division between unionized public employees and non-union private-sector workers, in addition to the ongoing economic crisis, that has allowed the assault on public-sector unions to gather such momentum.

But this division did not always exist, and there was a time not so long ago when public-sector workers were not the last outpost of American unions. In fact, until 2009, private-sector workers represented the majority of the country’s union membership. The decline in private-sector union membership is the result of deindustrialization and outsourcing of industrial jobs, on the one hand, but also of a sustained anti-union offensive by employers — and weak labor law to protect workers — since the 1970s, on the other.

A look at the percentage of workers who are unionized is telling. Union density in the United States last year hovered around 11.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than 70 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the public sector, 36.2 percent of workers were in unions. In the private sector, however, only 6.9 percent were represented by a union, the lowest percentage in more than a century. These numbers are a shadow of what they once were: at their height in the 1950s, unions represented more than a third of American workers, the majority of them in the private sector.

This decline has left public-sector workers a vulnerable target for anti-union attacks like those breaking out now. And it has had disastrous consequences for American workers and the middle class in general. Since unions often drive up wages and working conditions in entire markets, all workers — both union and non-union — benefit from their presence. In contrast, the decline of private-sector unions over the last several decades has left corporate power unchecked, resulting in the worst income inequality of any developed country in the world.

The current wave of attacks on public-sector unions is a continuation of the earlier assault on labor but, having largely destroyed the private-sector unions, the union-busters have now turned their attention to the public sector, to finish the job, so to speak.

Until we change popular attitudes toward the labor movement and get all working people fighting on the same side, the attacks will continue. There’s only one way to secure our futures: rebuild the private-sector and public-sector union movement from the bottom up, and transform the labor movement so that it speaks for all workers, not just those in unions.

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