Tuesday, November 08, 2011

High stakes in today's referendum in Ohio

One of the most significant, harmful, and pernicious developments in US politics over the past four decades has been the long-term collapse of the union movement. The reasons for that judgment go beyond the obvious but important facts that this process has been profoundly disempowering for many Americans and has, directly or indirectly, helped eliminate necessary counterweights to the the plutocratic forces in American politics. The consequences have also been damaging to American democracy for wider reasons of the sort emphasized, for example, by Tocqueville.

I don't mean to suggest that Tocqueville was especially a fan of unions. What I have in mind is Tocqueville's analysis of how a democratic political society works and of the factors that can threaten or eviscerate it. Tocqueville and others argue (convincingly in my view) that the viability and effectiveness of democratic self-government depends not only on laws and formal institutions, important as those are, but also on the existence and vitality of a broadly inclusive political culture of citizenship. A political culture of democratic citizenship is both expressed through and promoted by involvement in ongoing practices of association, cooperation, collective action, and active solidarity. On the other hand, a political culture of citizenship is undermined by tendencies toward social atomization, a narrowly exclusive focus on self-interested individualism, and the erosion of associational life. And it so happens that over the past several decades one factor that has powerfully contributed to such tendencies in American society has been the collapse of the labor movement.

This long-term decline of unions can be explained partly in terms of impersonal structural and cultural factors that are also at work in other western societies, and partly in terms of internal weaknesses and errors of the union movement itself. But that's only part of the picture. In the US, another crucial factor has been a relentless campaign of union-busting pursued ever since the 1960s by employers, right-wing ideologues and propagandists, (mostly Republican) politicians and bureaucrats, and a massive bloc of pro-business and/or doctrinaire pro-market federal judges appointed by a generation of Republican presidents. The agenda has been to undermine or eliminate the rights of workers, in both the private and public sectors, to form unions without risk of intimidation or retaliation and to bargain collectively.

This campaign has included changing laws and administrative regulations or, when that can't be done explicitly, rendering them ineffective in practice. (For example, in principle employers are not legally allowed to fire workers simply because they want to form a union, but in practice that supposed legal protection is increasingly a bad joke.) This whole process has been self-reinforcing, with the usual vicious circles of cause and effect, since the declining numbers of union members and the declining political clout of unions has increased the strength of anti-union forces and encouraged them to redouble their efforts.

Well, maybe they've overreached a bit. With luck, we may be about to see some signs of a backlash.

It is beginning to look as though today's referendum in Ohio may deal a major setback to this ongoing Republican/plutocratic war against the union movement, which has intensified in recent years. Since this assault against unions has had such a tremendously corrosive effect on political society and political culture in the US, a defeat for anti-union measures in Ohio would also, in my opinion, be a victory for democracy and democratic citizenship. (And one doesn't have to love all unions, or agree with all the policies they favor, to feel this way.) A victory for anti-union forces, on the other hand, would be ... unfortunate.

The stakes were captured nicely by David Firestone in an opinion piece in the New York Times Weekly Review this past weekend (November 5, 2011):
Republican state lawmakers in the Upper Midwest have been remarkably successful this year in stripping public employees of their bargaining rights, but that campaign could slam to a halt on Tuesday when Ohio voters get a chance to weigh in.

Unions and business groups have poured a huge amount of time and money into a referendum on whether to overturn Senate Bill 5, signed into law in March by Gov. John Kasich. The measure bans negotiations on health benefits for public employees, including police officers and firefighters, and makes it virtually impossible to bargain on staffing or to collect dues properly. The outcome will say a great deal about whether blue-collar anger at Republican policies is large enough to be felt at the ballot box, both this year and more importantly in 2012.

A recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that it might be, showing that 57 percent of Ohio’s registered voters support repealing the Republican bill. The petition drive to get the referendum on the ballot drew 1.3 million signatures, the largest number in state history. (A state constitutional amendment that would block national health care reform from taking effect in Ohio is also on the ballot and may increase Republican turnout, but that issue hinges solely on a Supreme Court decision and is not a state matter.)

The level of political energy generated by the referendum is being closely watched because tamping down union power was at the heart of Republican efforts in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and several other states. Unions say that businesses are hoping to privatize public jobs in those states, but that the larger goal is to gut the public unions of their dues and thus their political power to oppose Republicans at the state and national levels.

Democratic governors in New York and Connecticut have shown that it is perfectly possible to make substantial cuts in spending on salaries and pensions without killing unions. Republicans in the Midwest always wanted much more than that, and Tuesday will be the biggest test of whether they can achieve it.
So I'm hoping for the best.

[Next-day update: The good guys won decisively, 62%-38%.]

Yours for democratic citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. If you'd like to see an eloquent statement by Ronald Reagan insisting that "where free unions and collective bargaining is forbidden, freedom is lost", check out the video clip below. (As President, he later defended "the basic right [....] to form free trade unions and to strike".) Of course, he didn't really mean it, but what he said was eloquent and correct nevertheless.

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