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Time for a Little Education
Posted on Mar 23, 2011
By Jim Mamer
’Tis much when scepters are in children’s hands;
But more when envy breeds unkind division;
There comes the rain, there begins confusion.
I’m a retired teacher and I’m pissed. No matter what form of media I look at, I’m confronted with constant references to the various budget crises. The federal government has a deficit. States have budget problems. Cities face massive shortfalls. And school districts are on the edge of bankruptcy. The crises are real, but the search for culprits has degenerated into a hypocritical attempt to score political points.
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Instead, the cause identified by most Republican governors, legislators and pundits is simple; government spends too much, and a lot of the blame falls on the public service unions. Indeed, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., one panel was titled “Bleeding America Dry: The Threat of Public Sector Unions.” That’s right: The firefighters, the police and the teachers are bleeding the country dry. They are paid too much and have way-way-too-generous benefits. They should be ashamed of themselves, their unions and their pensions.
I’m not ashamed, not even a little; I’m just tired of the bullshit. Don’t bother thinking that “in this economy, everyone is suffering.” That’s a lie. It’s not even close to true. On the contrary, the richest among us have gotten a whole lot richer. Even those recently bailed-out Wall Street bankers. In 2009, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, “After bringing the world to the brink of economic disaster, major investment banks are planning to pay their people 30% more than last year in salary plus bonus.” And in the same year, Executive PayWatch reported that a chief executive officer of a company on the S&P 500 index was paid, on average, $9.25 million in total compensation. Two of the biggest winners were Bank of America’s Thomas Montag, with a total compensation of $29,930,431, and Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf at $21,340,547. (From an AFL-CIO analysis of 292 companies in the S&P 500 Index.)
Clearly, there is money enough to fix our problems, but if one listens to the ever-present right-wing chorus, income inequality is only to be praised. It’s God’s will. The plutocrats deserve everything they have. They work harder and smarter than the rest of us. In fact they work so hard that even their kids will deserve the money when Mom and Dad die. Tax-free. But the teachers, the firefighters and the cops don’t deserve any breaks. They get too much. They have too many negotiated contracts, too much pay and too many benefits.
While it goes without saying that anti-union propaganda has a long and shameful history in this country, the current wave of coordinated Republican-led attacks on public-worker unions is still appalling. Naturally we should have seen it coming because the newest attacks on public service unions were developed in the context of other, often successful, attacks on unions of all types. It’s a story worth remembering. With globalization, countless American industrial jobs were relocated to countries with lower wages and ineffective or nonexistent unions. This led to increased U.S. unemployment, increased underemployment and a diminished middle class. Problems were inevitable. Still, despite deindustrialization, good union jobs remained. They paid living wages and still seemed to offer secure benefits. As such they made tempting targets; as the anti-union case was made publicly, the attack was refined. According to some, for example, the failure at GM was not the result of bad cars or poor management; it was the fault of greedy unionized autoworkers. Too many negotiated contracts, too much pay, too many benefits.
A pattern developed. In 2001, when the formerly powerful Bethlehem Steel Corp. declared bankruptcy, at least part of the blame was laid on the unions. They had taken unfair advantage of a naive and well-meaning management. They had demanded too much. Accordingly, the following year the company was allowed to terminate its pension obligations, which were then assumed by a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The pensions eventually paid to retired workers were often drastically (and legally) reduced. In 2005, the then-bankrupt United Airlines received court permission to terminate its pension plans for the various unions representing pilots, flight attendants and mechanics and other ground service workers. This released the airline from more than $3 billion in obligations and put a reduced pension responsibility on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Other airlines, and other corporations, sought and received the same treatment.
But consider who was at fault when it is clear that all of these “too-generous” retirement plans had been negotiated among and between privately owned companies and unionized workers. Is it not obvious that all parties knew the terms of the contacts? Is it not obvious that the amount of money needed to properly fund these agreements could have been discovered by anyone with minimal math skills and a calculator? It was never the unions, but the companies that purposefully failed to adequately fund their obligations and then found legal ways to renege on their promises.
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