A 3-Point Plan to Save Public Unions: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Roger Bybee

In January 1969, my father helped to lead an illegal strike by a few dozen fellow social workers in Racine County, Wisconsin, that yielded better wages, benefits and union recognition after three weeks on the picket lines.

Of course, Racine had a spirited tradition as a union town (80% of industrial workers were unionized, according to a 1937 Works Project Administration history). Public workers could thus count on strong public support.

But today’s environment couldn’t be more different, as a large new crew of Republican governors and GOP-dominated legislatures take aim at public workers. The offensive against public employees is occurring nationally, as it provides a convenient set of economic villains for states’ fiscal problems brought on by the Great Recession and the massive cuts in states’ corporate taxes in recent years. 

Whether the governor is a Democrat like New York’s Andrew Cuomo or a Republican like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (see here and here), public employees are being blamed for states’ budget shortfalls. With only 6.9% of private sector workers in unions, the 36.2% of public workers in unions look relatively privileged” because 93% of the private workforce has no voice and no protections.

But at last, it appears that public employees are preparing a comprehensive counter-attack in Wisconsin.

Bob Allen, communications director for AFSCME in Wisconsin, last week promised a sweeping campaign by his and other public-employee unions very soon. We’ve got some big things in the works right now.” Allen declined to be more specific at this moment, saying, We don’t want to telegraph our game plan right now.”

I have no idea what AFSCME’s game plan contains, but I can’t resist offering a few suggestions:

1) First, public employee unions must stress their commitment to the public interest.

As Amanda Tattersall explains persuasively in her compelling book Power in Coalition (see some key ideas here), Australian teachers were able to fend off anti-union attacks by their consistent work with parent groups seeking to improve education for their children.

Similarly, the slashing of maintenance of Milwaukee’s cherished public parks system, during Scott Walker’s reign as county executive, provides an opportunity for AFSCME to point out the results of his strategy and to work closely with pro-park and environmental groups.

Unions must seize every opportunity to speak up for the public
interest and defend quality public programs and amenities for all.

2) Second, public unions must educate both their own members and the general public about unfair corporate advantages in the tax system.

These inequities create a heavy tax burden for working families which the Right uses to turn the public against public employees. Wisconsin has relatively high taxes hitting moderate-income residents.

Undoubtedly, many working families assume that if they are being hit hard by taxes, then big corporations must really be getting hammered. After all, isn’t that why so many manufacturing jobs have left the state?

In fact, corporations have played the 50 states off against each other in a self-destructive competition, demanding that each state provide ever-lower taxes, less regulation and more hostility toward worker rights.

But even after benefitting hugely from lowered tax rates, countless firms have exported their jobs anyway, sending all or most of their production to the low-wage South, Mexico, and China. Wisconsin has truly been seduced and abandoned.

3) Public unions must make the tax burden afflicting working families known to the general public.

The facts are on public workers’ side, but the Right has dominated and distorted the debate for decades.

Much of the public thus believes that corporations are probably over-taxed. Many also think that tax breaks and subsidies are effective means of creating and retaining jobs. These widely-held myths feed a stream of $50 billion in state-level subsidies annually to corporations who don’t need the money, according to Greg LeRoy’s book The Great American Jobs Scam.

Jack Norman, research director of the Institute for Wisconsin’s
Future, has documented that over 60% of Wisconsin corporations with
revenues of $100 million or more pay no corporate income taxes. That
of course shifts a huge burden on to the backs of working families,
who suffer from higher taxes, escalating university tuition for
their kids and cutbacks in vital public services.

If Wisconsin corporate taxes were merely raised to the national average, a substantial chunk of the state’s fiscal problems would be addressed, Norman points out:

…if corporations in Wisconsin were paying taxes simply at the U.S. average, this would annually generate nearly $1 billion dollars in additional revenue for state and local governments.

This would be enough to reverse statewide service cuts, which range from bus routes and library hours to road repair and school staffing.

This message must not remain buried in think tank reports discussed by only a handful of union staffers and academics.


This message about corporate tax breaks vs. tax justice and public services must be spread to union members via DVDs and flyers so that a big new corps of activists can be created. It must also be taken to the general public with TV ads and use of the Internet and other social media

These crucial facts — and their meaning for the public — must be popularized and translated into a compelling message that will reach working families. 

Then we can begin to spark a wide-ranging debate in place of the Republican-Democratic consensus that creating a good business climate” is the paramount, indeed only, concern of state and local government.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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