Home National Politics LET’S BE FAIR: Unions, Jobs, Deficits, and Debt

LET’S BE FAIR: Unions, Jobs, Deficits, and Debt


“I work for a private company, I had to take a pay cut, it’s only fair that public workers do, too.” Well, isn’t that true?  Isn’t that fair?  The concept of “fairness” does not occur in Nature. Fairness is an entirely human invention. Anyone who has watched tiny children in action knows that even the youngest has an innate idea of what’s fair, especially when it applies to themselves individually, and their toys.  As we grow older, our sense of “fairness” grows more subtle, and tends to expand, sometimes to the sophisticated level of rationalization to excuse personal greed (when one is on the receiving end of more toys), and perpetual victim-hood (when one is not on the receiving end of more toys). What does fairness have to do with unions in Wisconsin, or jobs, or the current fad of concern for budget deficits/debt (“it isn’t fair to saddle our grandkids with paying off our huge debt”)? Answer: a lot.

What’s considered fair by a human being is completely determined by what is included in the description of the situation; in other words, what is within the framework. The one who draws the frame, deciding what to include and what to leave out, is the one who will determine what is “fair.” In the current discussion of the deficit, the budget, and so-called entitlements, the corporatists and the Republican Party have completely dominated the discussion.  Why? Because they have created the issues, defined the terms, and decided what is to be included in the discussion…. the mass media and the Democrats, including President Obama, seem to have completely accepted their terms of debate.

Let’s look at how the fairness frame of each topic has been designed, and what happens if you change the frame to include other factors, or exclude a factor or two currently included.


“are part of the problem: State and local governments (federal, too) face enormous budget shortfalls; public employees are better paid  and have cushier benefits than comparable workers in private enterprise, including fat pensions which governments can no longer afford to pay, especially in recessionary times; private workers, in order to keep their jobs, have had to accept lower pay and fewer benefits, and, to be fair, so should public workers, in order to reduce the budget shortfalls; moreover, it is the baleful influence of unions, which bargained for the out-of-line expensive privileges public workers enjoy, that helped to cause much of the deficit, so unions have to be broken—- it’s called “shared sacrifice.” Also, compulsory union membership ( public and private), and collective bargaining both violate free market precepts, and both should be abolished, freeing each  worker individually to negotiate his terms of employment in a free market; this is called “Right to Work” and also “merit pay,” and is the American way.”

Changing the frame: 1) Wages: Public workers do not in fact earn more than comparable employees in private enterprise when such important factors as education and experience are included, and the higher you go, the greater the discrepancy in favor of private workers.  Wall Street and mega-corporations insist that, to recruit and retain talent it is necessary to provide top salaries, bonuses, and benefits in order to compete; the same principle applies to teachers, fire fighters, and even standard government bureaucrats—- it’s only fair that you really do get what you pay for (low pay scale offered=less talented applicants). Given that public employees not only keep our communities civilized, clean, and safe,  but are also educating our children, thus enabling America to continue to compete in the future, does anyone really believe we can do this on the cheap? For example, it’s penny-wise and pound foolish to gamble the future of our grandkids on the false economy of hiring cheap second-rate teachers because the real talent takes itself to better paying fields.

2) Taxes: One reason for these grandiose deficits (“budget shortfalls”) has been the continual enactment of big tax cuts for corporations and for the super-rich, plus the stubborn refusal to raise taxes for any reason whatsoever. However, the best things in life are not free.  Public workers have already agreed to pay cuts and to paying more into their own pension funds (Wisconsin’s pensions are almost fully funded). You know, public workers do have a contract with the government—- but most governments have cheated on them, taking the workers’ pension fund money to pay for other programs in order to “balance” the budget, so now their pensions are under-funded through no fault of the workers.  What happened to the sanctity of contracts and to the “rule of law,” so sacrosanct for businesses, but ignored when it comes to workers? Republicans follow a kiss-up-and-kick-down policy, which is hardly fair. Our real priorities absolutely must be ensuring our children’s future, even if today we must sacrifice some of our own current consumption in order to pay for securing that future. Revenue enhancements, i.e., fair taxes, will help to solve much of the so-called  budget shortfalls. Real political leadership would level with the voters.  Properly presented, taxes are simply the fee we pay to live in a civilized society; voters collectively decide what their spending priorities are, and that’s where their collective money should be spent—- not on earmarks for a politician’s major campaign contributors. You want “shared sacrifice?” How about taxes as a fair shared sacrifice, Mr. Plutocrat?

3) Class Warfare: Republican agitprop encourages jealousy on the part of non-union workers for the supposed privileges of union workers, most especially for public sector union employees, whose wages are, they say, paid out of taxes paid by non-public workers (as if public employees do not also pay taxes).  It is the “divide and conquer” tactic familiar to despots and tyrants. The truth is, whatever the past faults of sclerotic union leadership, non-union workers have benefitted from the successes of union bargaining, like a living wage, an 8-hour day, improved safety on the job, unemployment benefits, workmen’s compensation, and an end to child labor. Thanks to the anti-working-, anti-middle class tactics by corporations and the Republicans today, any one who is employed by someone else is at risk, whether they are a union member or not. The corporotist Republican insistence on applying  “free market” theory (Right to Work) to labor is, pure and simple, class warfare, the sole intention of which is ruthlessly to drive down labor costs for capital, to that in third world countries, with utter disregard for social consequences, which costs are never included in figuring pricing and profits under free market theory. Actually, there is no such thing as a free market in the real world, most especially when it comes to negotiating for terms of employment at all but the topmost levels, because one side always has more knowledge than the other, and more clout—- in the case of worker versus management, the individual worker is at a severe disadvantage in today’s marketplace. Therefore, if you really believe in a “free market,” workers should be free to assemble and to agree among themselves to bargain as a group, i.e., collectively—- it is not fair to prevent them from doing so, or to devise constraints which hinder them from doing so.

When we see non-union or de-unionized workers ranting against unions while supporting their employers’ demands for tax cuts, or excusing bad management practices, all because the boss is providing them with jobs, what we are seeing is the Stockholm Syndrome showing up among oppressed labor—- they have unconsciously ended up identifying themselves with their oppressors, as hostages after a time identify with their captors. White collar workers delude themselves when they suppose the nature of their employment is a buffer against exploitation—- look at Lily Ledbetter.


“Government spending is out of control at every level: states have committed to too many programs or projects which cannot be paid for in the long haul, and the federal government has created monster entitlements and nanny government programs which coddle favored voting blocks at the expense of other citizens.  These entitlements and nanny programs are paid for by other citizens through taxation.  Taxes, in other words, are nothing more than theft by the state from the competent and creative producers of society in order to “spread the wealth around” to less productive (and thus less deserving) people, and that’s definitely not fair. If anything is required or desired by a society, the free, unregulated market will produce it because a creative, hard working person will see the need and fill it efficiently for a profit—- government is not needed, and should not meddle in the process. Because America has violated these precepts we have slipped into inefficient and expensive socialism, and saddled ourselves with horrendous debt, dangerous debt which we cannot sustain and must not pass on to our grandkids. Corporations, that is, Business, are the only real job creators, so cutting taxes on business (and the investors who finance business) creates jobs; government red tape, meddlesome environmental or nanny government regulations are unnecessary expenses that we cannot afford, and they cost jobs. Shrinking government, abolishing red tape and regulations, slashing entitlements, and lowering taxes is the only sensible, fair way to create jobs, grow the economy, and abolish the debt problem.”

A basic critique: First, Figures may not lie, but liars figure.  Everything about the  argument that a business project is automatically always more efficiently or cheaply run than a government project is not true; privatization is rarely a solution.  Nor are taxes ipso facto “theft.” Nor is all debt necessarily bad, and calculating its size and its consequences can be manipulated like any other statistic to prove whatever one wishes to prove, or grind whatever axe one wishes to grind; do not trust the Republican narrative, here be dragons.  Second, What we have here is a fundamentally different view of the purpose and mission of government, and a simplistic, even immature idea that government is a business and should be run like a business. This is, frankly, a stupid idea, partly because government is not supposed to generate a profit (unless it is actually designed to be a kleptocracy, of course). Third, The underlying free market theory so beloved by Big Business and Republicans is fundamentally flawed, both as an economic theory and even more so as a political theory. Attempting to apply it in its purist form results in class warfare and historically recurrent economic disasters—- worse, whenever its prescriptions for treating economic problems are tried on a national scale, they invariably prove counter productive, producing unacceptable levels of pain, suffering, and social unrest.  Fourth, despite trying to equate free market theory with Democracy and Freedom, in real life it requires authoritarian leadership, not democracy, and it produces freedom for corporations and oppression for everyone but the topmost elite. That is why, as America the super power tried to win the Cold War by spreading free market freedom around the world, it so often ended up supporting dictators like Mubarak in Egypt or Pinochet in Chile.  Therefore, it is fair to say that the whole Republican theory of government and economics is nothing more than class warfare, and blatantly unfair.

Changing the frame:1) The social contract, not the free market, is the correct underlying political theory (it guided our famous Founding Fathers).  Government’s purpose is not to support and serve Business (as one Republican legislator has said), but to protect and defend its natural, living citizens, promote their welfare, and provide a stable system which enables each individual to lead a productive and personally fulfilling life to the best of their personal abilities. In this context, immortal corporations are not people, living but mortal people are people, and, to be fair, the community of people decides what they want their government to do for them and with them, regardless of whether or not a particular ideology approves.

2) The only thing capable of protecting the weaker from bullies is something bigger than the bully. That something bigger is either another, bigger bully—- or, the institution of government. While historically human beings, as social animals seeking protection, usually defaulted to becoming clients, serfs, or slaves of a more powerful human being, we have learned that this system is inherently unfair, and so we invented the concepts of “government” and “justice” to protect the weaker and create a level playing field.  Destroying government, i.e., encouraging the withering away of the state as both Communist theory and Free Market theory actually propose, is to destroy the very idea of being human. It is not government that is too big and expensive, it is the global corporations that are costing society too much, and need to be reined in. 3) To combat a recession, massive, quick deficit spending, often accompanied by higher (not lower) taxes does the trick. There has been a massive dis-information campaign by corporotist Republicans to demonize Keynesian economics and “prove” that FDR’s deficit New Deal spending did not ameliorate the Great Depression, and that only World War II did. Not true; indeed, whenever FDR stopped his deficit spending, the economy tanked (as happened in 1937).  Moreover, under FDR, when taxes on businesses were raised during deficit spending, the economy improved; and Reagan (patron saint of free market theorists) actually raised taxes, rather than lowering them as Republicans claim. Cutting spending and paying down the debt only kills jobs and hampers recovery. Those countries, like China and Germany, which rapidly injected massive stimulus funds into their economies have fared much better after the recent market crash than those countries which slashed payrolls and budgets.4) Pure market economics simply cannot and will not create certain desired or desirable products on its own. The profit motive by itself is inadequate (why else do so many free marketeers endorse subsidies and other corporate welfare?). Government grants funded basic research which created the Internet, for example, many pharmaceuticals, and, historically, the transcontinental railroad (and, in Japan, the bullet train). Another thing: only a single-payer, universal health care system will lower costs, provide all of us with healthier, more productive lives—- and reduce costs for employers, thus making American business more competitive.

Progressives are not socialists, they do not advocate intrusive nanny government, and they support neither “tax and spend” nor “borrow and spend.”  They simply want a fair society

  • Teddy Goodson

    has been buried under Republicans’ political agenda,—– abolishing collective bargaining does  not create jobs. Slashing public payrolls decreases jobs. Cutting government spending on programs, especially those which create jobs, decreases jobs. All done in the name of “decreasing the deficit, which will increase jobb— all a smoke screen for class warfare.

    Besides, Obama’s policies are finally taking hold, and jobs are being created by the private sector at last.

    The only effective way to respond to Republican savagery (after emergency triage) is to establish new terms of debate, change the basic flawed free market, anti-government theory underlying every Republican policy. Democrat will lose the battle and the war if all they do is agree we need to rein in the deficit, and “everything’s on the table,” including social security—— everything except un-cutting the Bush tax cuts, or taxing Wall Street trllionaires, that is.