Don't Scapegoat Unions For Municipal Woes

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[The State Of Unions]

The labor movement is no stranger to conflict. Its mission involves organizing workers to aggressively confront a more powerful foe. The last decade has certainly had its share of confrontations. But today, workers are facing their greatest threat in generations.

Disputes over contract negotiations, work assignments and layoffs will seem like a day at the beach compared to the clash on the horizon.  Labor unions will not only be fighting to preserve wages and benefits, but for the most basic workers’ rights.

The financial crisis of local, state and federal governments – created by years of mismanaged budgets and the recent economic meltdown – has changed the terms of the debate. The national mood swells with anger at the financial troubles gripping households across the country. Much of that resentment has been channeled against unions, a highly visible target.

The dialogue is increasingly one-sided. The media portrays public pension funds like bottomless pits dug by unions for dumping buckets of taxpayer dollars. Benefits are criticized as overly generous. Wage increases are looked upon with scorn.

Under intense pressure to balance budgets and calm restless constituents, many elected officials are blaming government’s fiscal problems on public unions. Instead of tackling inefficient programs, or enacting a more equitable tax structure, it’s simpler to lay off workers and cut benefits for new hires.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing a far-reaching overhaul to the civil service work rules. The changes would undermine key elements, including seniority and exams that serve as the backbone of our civil service system, created to end patronage and abuses.

Unions did not create the large budget deficits and will not accept being made the scapegoats. These shortfalls are the result of poor political decisions and the epic collapse of Wall Street. As the financial industry recovers and begins hiring again, the anger once squarely directed at greedy bankers has slowly faded. Wall Street has essentially been forgiven its irresponsible losses, while workers, as usual, are expected to foot the bill for the rich.

Despite media reports that single out a handful of public workers retiring with large pensions, the average public pension for a New York City Employees Retirement System worker is less than $19,000 a year. This represents vital income needed to sustain people who have served the public good their entire careers.

On pensions and other conflicts to come, we will stand our ground. We must follow the example of Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this month, who helped shape a new nation with organized, non-violent protest.

We will face conflict with dignity and aggressive action, and I believe we will win. Dr. King was not just a civil rights leader, but a crusader for the working class. He understood that workers’ and social rights are linked. In the end, it is about fairness, which we will defend from those who would take advantage of us.

Floyd is President, Teamsters Local 237

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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