Almost 80 years ago, the United States and much of the world were battling the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, stock market speculation drove regulatory reform, and the jobless were put to work through the New Deal, helping to rebuild communities across the U.S.
Workers achieved a major step forward when President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act, putting in place a legislative framework that allowed workers to join unions without undue intimidation. By 1945, the Great Depression was long over, and the economy – booming due to Second World War production – converted to domestic goals, and an unheralded period of growth ensued. The ranks of unionized workers exploded, and the middle-class U.S. emerged.
This led to the United States’ so-called “Golden Age” following the war. Productivity and the economy grew at a strong pace, and workers shared in the increasing wealth – both with rising wages and an expansion of universal public services. Just as importantly, people fought for and won an expansion of democratic, human, and labour rights.
A quick look at history is instructive for us because it stands in sharp contrast to the political response to economic crisis today. Unlike the legislative response of the Great Depression, the current recession has seen an assault on public sector workers across the U.S. The large deficits and debts are the result of an economic crisis caused by an out-of-control financial sector, but the big money is trying to pin the blame on public sector workers.
The political right sees an opportunity to finish off the American labour movement. Private-sector union density has fallen to seven per cent, and the sole sector with significant union density, the public sector, is under attack.
In Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and Wisconsin, just to name a few, the right wing is mounting an all-out offensive against public-sector unions under the thin veil of austerity.
These assaults are not about curing deficits or managing states’ debt loads. They are clearly about a political agenda that has been underway for the past quarter-century, with both legislative attacks and a global trade experience that has decimated the U.S. manufacturing base – all for the purpose of maximizing corporate profits at any cost. Workers’ rights get in the way of this agenda, and the political right smells blood.
The agenda isn’t about wage freezes or restraint bargaining, it is about eliminating public-sector workers’ bargaining rights, as well as ending trade-union political-action efforts.
FDR, in his 12-plus years in office, narrowed the gap between the rich and the poor, and in addition to enacting the modern U.S. welfare state, empowered workers.
His efforts worked and contributed greatly to the most significant economic boom in U.S. history.
The Republicans’ current agenda is about building their power at the expense of public-sector workers. It has little to do with fiscal responsibility, and everything to do with cutting off voices of dissent and opposition while paving the way for capital accumulation.
It is a strategy that won’t work, but it will test the U.S. labour movement, and will perhaps present a unique opportunity for them to mount a much needed campaign to win over both their membership and the general public to confront the failed and punitive economic strategies of the right.
The attacks on Canada’s public-sector workers may not be as bold, but they have started. and they are as deeply rooted in a right-wing ideology as we’ve seen south of the border.
Under dubious and unsubstantiated claims of saving Toronto taxpayers untold millions, newly elected mayor Rob Ford is moving to establish the beachhead for the Canadian right’s own attack on the public sector.
Stripping Toronto Transit Commission workers of the right to strike and moving recklessly ahead with plans to contract out waste collection are top items on the Ford gravy-train hit list.
What’s missing from Ford’s plans, however, is any conclusive proof that these measures will save one dollar for city coffers.
For example, a detailed analysis of available data on the costs of private waste collection in neighbouring municipalities shows that Toronto stands to pay substantially more for waste collection if it’s contracted out.
A troubling aspect of these attacks, whether they are happening in the U.S., in Canada, or anywhere else around the world, is the skewed portrayal of workers.
The large majority of public-sector workers are in health care, schools, social services, and local government. They are mostly women, and they are far from highly paid. Of the over 600,000 members of CUPE, the average annual pay is less than $40,000. It takes a certain amount of gall to portray these workers as privileged.
Gall, however, is something not lacking in the Canadian right. Instead of tackling this country’s economic recovery in a responsible and equitable way, they take up a diversionary strategy in casting the public sector as scapegoats while extending even more corporate tax cuts to Canada’s banks and finance industry. Corporate tax cuts, which at this point should surprise no one, have not been proven to generate any of the new jobs or investments it is claimed they will.
Attacking the public sector and attempting to foist all responsibility on workers is at best a mistake, at worst an all-out assault on the middle and working classes to consolidate the economic power of the world’s corporations and the political influence of the world’s right wing. This is not only unfair, it is misguided. More of the same economic policies that caused both the Great Depression and Great Recession may help boost business profits in the short run, but they are a recipe for long-term economic malaise and ever more devastating booms and busts.
These attacks are not only on the workers; they also take unjustified aim at our communities, large and small. Canadians are being asked not only to shoulder the deficits, but also to sacrifice the high-quality public services we have developed over generations.
It is undeniable that governments around the world are facing substantial and at times daunting financial woes after weathering the global economic recession. Stimulus spending has left a hefty debt that, if left unchecked, could plague generations to come.
As governments, however, they must ensure that all members of society contribute their fair share to the ongoing recovery. Public-sector workers the world over are prepared to do their part, but the responsibility cannot and should not be put on their shoulders alone.