Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Unions Have a Place, Even in Fiscal Conservatism

Opinion by Harvey Elwood Jr

Not surprisingly, following the recent major Republican electoral victories, federal and state budget deficits and shortfalls are a top political priority everywhere we turn. As a solution, several Republican-controlled Midwestern state governments (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana) are attempting to restructure the way business is conducted with public service workers and the unions which represent them.

Whatever happens will have a dramatic impact on educators, firefighters, public safety officers, hospital workers, sanitation workers, and all those who do the heavy lifting in the public service sector. Not to say that most other average hard-working men and women are not doing their share; after all, only seven percent of employees in the private sector are represented by unions.

The idea being generally proposed by Republicans leaders in these Midwestern states is that state government should save taxpayers money and repeal some of the benefits of public service workers during these hard economic times, including the power of unions to bargain collectively on behalf of public service worker benefit packages.

For many of us, this issue is beyond our experience. Most of us have never directly known the benefit of a union fighting for our worker rights. However, we can very well imagine walking into a courtroom without a lawyer to speak on our behalf.

Many of these Republican leaders rightfully are asking why the community at large should bear the cost for public service employee benefits . No matter your position on the political spectrum, it’s a question worth answering. Here’s my answer: business (the private sector) is about profit and not people. It’s hard to imagine many companies would willingly hand out profit shares, benefits, medical or pensions to employees without some type of collective action or group support on their behalf—even if the standard was set in another sector and sometimes even decades prior.

Here’s an amazing quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that helps defend my answer: “Less than a century ago, the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren. The children of workers had no childhood and no future. They, too, worked for pennies an hour and by the time they reached their teens they were worn-out old men, devoid of spirit, devoid of hope and devoid of self-respect.”

I’m no socialist and am not in favor of a welfare state, but I am very much for giving every working person a fair share and protection from corporate greed. Perhaps unions and public workers need to do a little bending in tough economic times—and this is exactly what the Midwestern public service unions have offered by way of concessions to the likes of Governor Walker of Wisconsin. But it would be absolutely wrong to do away with organizations that have long defended the rights of the working class. Let us not forget that unions gave us the five-day work week, vacation pay and the concept of retirement and workplace health insurance. In fact, it can be argued that without unions there would be no middle class of which to speak.

In the end, this is still America, and everyone has the right to work themselves out of poverty and attain a higher standard of living for themselves and their children. But no man or woman is an island. At times, everyone needs an advocate, a voice.

The author is a semi-retired civil servant and educator who now resides in Orangeburg.

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