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How government employers undermine workers


There is a lot of excitement about the UAW strike, union organizing at Starbucks and Amazon and even talk about the strike that didn’t happen at UPS this summer. 

But little attention is paid to the many strikes and union campaigns at the country’s largest employer — government — which employs about 24 million people or 15 percent of the U.S. workforce. Although we elect our local, state and federal bosses, government is often overlooked as an important part of the economy.  

Union density is highest in the public sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 33 percent of government workers are unionized, with lower rates in the South, in the private sector the level is a miserable 6 percent. 

There is an important reason for this difference. As labor lawyer Joe Burns showed in his book “Strike Back,” public-sector wildcat strikes of the 1960s and ‘70s sparked the passage of labor laws that granted the right to collectively bargain and even strike. This resulted in modest growth in public-sector unionization at the same time it collapsed in the private sector.  

The collapse of private-sector unionization was the result of private companies automating, outsourcing, merging and going out of business to shed their union workers. Unions mostly went along with it by negotiating their own demise.  

While government cannot pack up and leave, it can automate, outsource and privatize. Electing our own boss has limits. 

Too many union leaders are over-reliant on support from elected officials during bargaining in exchange for our support with money and volunteers at election time. That rarely happens. The Chief recently reported that it took an absurd 13 years for Staten Island Ferry workers to get a new CBA. 

The opposite result is more likely. Elected officials use their relationships with union leaders to keep union workers from striking so that they are not embarrassed while running for re-election.   

For the past 50 years, government has operated like a private corporation. They use real or imaginary budget deficits to justify never-ending austerity, cuts, outsourcing and privatization. This dampens our demands for fear of further cutbacks and layoffs and instead makes us work harder for less pay. 

Government is neither a neutral player nor serves the working class majority. As I show in my book “We the Elites,” government has long served the interests of the elite minority who own and run the capitalist economy. 

Regardless of who gets elected, their party or their political philosophy, they all have the same responsibility. They must make sure that the capitalist economy runs smoothly and uninterrupted. If the economy falters when they are up for re-election, their political principles won’t matter. Both major parties are expected to protect, promote and grow the economy or they lose. 

If unemployment goes up, prices spiral and life gets even harder, the deep-pocketed donors will pour money into the opposition party to punish those in the majority for not protecting the economy. Voters will send them and their party packing regardless of which of the two parties they belong to.  

While government has little direct control of the privately owned economy, it still plays a huge role in making it run. According to the IMF, government spending accounts for about 42 percent of our entire GDP, the total of all products and services. Government services such as infrastructure, security the training of new workers are critically productive parts of the economy.  

James Madison was perfectly clear in Federalist Paper #10 about government’s number one priority. He wrote that “the first object of government” is “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” Protecting property, or what he meant by the capitalist economy, wasn’t just a top priority but the first and most important.  

Today we see that in countless ways. Both parties break strikes, as President Biden and the Democrats did with the railroad strike last year. Republicans have used the National Labor Relations Board to make it easier for employers to engage in union avoidance, fire rank and file organizers, and refuse to bargain. These policies continue regardless of which party is in power. That’s why there has been no reform of labor law in nearly a half a century. 

Both parties also use the executive branch to promote the interests of private corporations at home and abroad in trade negotiations, diplomatic visits and military action. They aren’t meeting with unions and walking picket lines when they travel around the world. 

Even regulations we think protect public health, the environment and occupational safety create incentives for corporations to poison their customers, destroy the environment and injure and even kill their workers.  

Remember what happened to Exxon, BP, PG&E, Bank of America and Norfolk Southern in the biggest corporate scandals for the millennia. Nothing. Not a single one of their top executives has been charged let alone gone to jail. The companies take shortcuts on safety because paying fines and lawsuit settlements are profitable and tax deductible.  

This happens because government serves to protect and promote the capitalist economy at the expense of workers, the environment and our families and communities and prevent workers efforts to democratize work and the economy. 

Next time your union asks for a campaign donation to elect someone to office, remember that no matter where their heart or politics lie their “first object” in office will be to serve the capitalist economy. 

Even if Bernie Sanders had been elected president, we would not become a socialist country. His number one focus would be to ensure the capitalist economy keeps humming and to make sure it doesn’t crash on his watch. He could otherwise kiss his re-election prospects goodbye. 

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back” and, most recently, “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few. Follow him at @OvetzRobert 


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