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Portland Press Herald (Maine)

Wanna Bust a Union? Be Careful What You Wish For

Public worker benefits costly? Higher taxes will solve the problem

Michael Hamilton

GORHAM — Two important things are being ignored in the recent spate of union-busting taking place in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey.

First, unions have never had the ability to take whatever they wanted. Whatever benefits unionized workers receive are the result of contract negotiations that management agreed to.

In most cases, labor would have preferred larger increases in wages instead of increased benefits.

It was management that offered greater health care and pension benefits as an alternative to higher wages. That was certainly the case in Maine.

If the costs of those health care and retirement benefits have gotten higher than state and local governments can afford without raising taxes, responsibility for that lies mainly with management, not labor. In a real sense, the management chickens are merely coming home to roost.

The obvious solution is to undertake tax increases previously postponed.

Per capita taxes in the United States are markedly lower than in any other industrialized democracy in the world.

Unless we are not smart enough to do what others have done, clearly we can increase taxes without doing damage to the economy. If they can do it, certainly we can.

Moreover, if management now decides to break previous union agreements, or deprive us of collective bargaining, they will destroy a public trust that has allowed negotiated agreements to be implemented, and it will be extremely difficult to regain that trust from labor in future.

Second, unions have historically fulfilled an important social role of helping to manage larger conflicts between socioeconomic classes in a manner that has benefited society as a whole.


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Few now alive recall the turmoil, violence, bloodshed and destruction of property that took place before collective bargaining was made legal in the United States, as labor fought tooth and nail for its share of the economic benefits of its efforts.

Yet it did happen, and unions have served a socially desirable role of helping to manage the inevitable conflicts between the wealthy owners of property and those employed by them, thereby minimizing disruptions of the economy.

Undermining the legitimacy of collective bargaining now threatens to return us to something like the previous status quo, at the sacrifice of domestic peace in civil society.

Are the libertarians and conservatives prepared to sacrifice the peace and return to open warfare between the classes in the United States?

Are they so stupid they fail to understand that if collective bargaining is taken away from the working classes, they will certainly find ways to disrupt the idle holidays of the wealthy among us?

The tools available today to labor are the same tools available to pro-democracy demonstrators who have totally disrupted the business climate in Egypt, Libya and other countries recently on the evening news.

Collective bargaining is admittedly a poor tool for advancement of economic democracy, but it is a relatively peaceful tool compared to others now available. Workers have children who need college educations to survive and thrive in the marketplace today.

Will they forgo mass demonstrations that threaten whole economies just so some conservative governor can improve his credentials for a future bid for the presidency? It does not seem likely.

Despite the short memories and ambitions of those who have forgotten how we got here, collective bargaining is good for American society.

It "ain't perfect," but it's better than the alternatives.

Michael S. Hamilton of Gorham, Maine is a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, and a former union officer.

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