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New year consequences

New York Teacher

February is one of those months. The afterglow of the holidays is gone. Those of us shivering in the north and even the unhuddled southern snowbirds have time to reflect on the wintry depths of experience or memory.

My thoughts are political and from a labor perspective. The horrendous news, nationally and internationally, of the past year brings to mind Yeats’ poetic caution: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” — in this case, an intensity with ripple effects.

Everybody sooner or later sits down to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “banquet of consequences” and we must face those consequences. How do we square the labor movement’s innate, long-range optimism with the consequences of the antiprogressive triumph of the last election? Well, we face it boldly and move on to the coming fight. Every new beginning brings new courses of action.

In the new Congress, many of the assaults on the social safety net that were turned back by the previous Senate will now get sympathetic consideration, and we must be ready when that nightmare becomes reality. Balanced against the priorities outlined in the recent State of the Union address, we hope we can rely on presidential leadership and the Obama veto pen.

But we must do our share. What is surfacing? What can we expect?

  • The December deal to fund the government through September contained permission to modify certain private-sector pension systems. They call it reform; we call it erosion. Workers envisioning a secure retirement have been blindsided by both political parties.
  • Paul Ryan as the new Ways and Means Committee chair now has greater influence. Can we expect him to act differently than he has in the past?
  • As President Obama looks to his legacy, will it presage more “Grand Bargain” scenarios, or will he defend and promote progressive labor causes?
  • Will voters such as those in Phoenix, Arizona, rise up and overwhelmingly defeat initiatives like their Proposition 487 to end local public employee pensions, or will they allow newly strengthened conservative state officials to further erode retirement security?
  • Will courts continue to issue decisions such as Harris v. Quinn that forbids unions to collect fair share fees from “nontraditional public employees” such as early childhood workers or visiting nurses and questions the longstanding agency fee obligations of nonmembers who won benefits from union benefits?
  • Will there be an ongoing proliferation of legal challenges to due process, tenure and seniority recall rights or will voters like those in California rise up and support the election of a pro-labor superintendent of instruction over an anti-tenure challenger?

While we have to play defense over the next two years, the Alliance for Retired Americans has set out some very positive priorities. Because we are a constituent part of the alliance, they will help us galvanize our activities and provide the context for our aims. They are: strengthen and expand Social Security; defend Medicare and Medicaid; make prescription drugs affordable; protect public and private pensions; preserve voting rights; expose corporate initiatives that harm retirees, workers and their families.

We will have to play both offense and defense.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid. Those who fought for decades to enrich the American social contract with these landmark achievements didn’t cower in the face of opposition. They understood the long-range consequences of the progressive labor struggle.

So as we sit down to our own “banquet of consequences,” we must do the same.