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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"The Strike That Busted Unions"

 It's the anniversary of Reagan's confrontation with Patco:

The Strike That Busted Unions, by Joseph A. McCartin, Commentary, NY Times: Thirty years ago today, when he threatened to fire nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike, Ronald Reagan not only transformed his presidency, but also shaped the world of the modern workplace. ... Reagan’s confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or Patco, undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions. ...
Although a conservative, Reagan often argued that private sector workers’ rights to organize were fundamental in a democracy. ... Over time, however, his crushing of the controllers’ walkout — which he believed was justified because federal workers were not allowed under the law to strike — has helped undermine the private-sector rights he once defended.
Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981... But after Patco, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. ... Many ... employers followed suit. ...
Reagan supported government workers’ efforts to unionize and bargain collectively. ... But ... Over time the rightward-shifting Republican Party has come to view Reagan’s mass firings not as a focused effort to stop one union from breaking the law — as Reagan portrayed it — but rather as a blow against public sector unionism itself. ...
With ... workers less able to defend their interests in the workplace than at any time since the Depression, the long-term consequences continue to unfold in ways Reagan himself ... never advocated.

There is an imbalance between workers and firms, but in a global economy I'm not sure unions have enough power to act as an effective counterbalance to firms (though, importantly, they still have a role to play as a political force if they can control large blocks of votes). As I've argued in the past:

The only institution powerful enough to protect workers now is government. By providing the things unions once fought for on behalf of workers, government can help to correct inequities and reduce the insecurity workers face. Ensuring that working-class households have the health and dental care they need, security in old age, a safe place to work, insurance against job loss, higher education that is essentially free, and the benefits of a tax policy that redistributes income so economic gains are shared more equitably would go a long way toward remedying what workers have lost since the 1970s.

The institution has the power, but this assumes a government that wants to do what's right for the nation as a whole, not just what's right for the vested interests that fill campaign coffers.

Though there's been some progress on health care it's far from enough and it may not last, and in general government seems to have little interest in filling the void created by the decline in unions. In fact, government has aided and abetted the decline in unions, and government seems intent on reducing the (already too few) things it does to help working class families.

So long as government serves vested rather than general interests, the rules and regulations will be stacked against unions and they will not be able to exert the political influence necessary to get government to be responsive to the needs of workers and their families. When Democrats took control after Bush left office, I thought we had some chance of making small inroads on this problem. But as government has all but turned its back on the millions of unemployed, and potentially made things even worse through deficit reduction, it's clear the vested interests are still in control.

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 12:42 AM in Economics, Market Failure, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (44)

          


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