It's not often that in-house elections for union leadership positions have nationwide political ramifications, but the one held yesterday in Los Angeles to elect a replacement for Gerald McEntee, the very-longtime president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, almost certainly did. For starters, of course, AFSCME has found itself very much at the front lines of the Republican move against public-sector unions.
In September 2009, I was in Pittsburgh covering the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention when word arrived that Max Baucus, then-chairman of the Senate finance committee, had released his version of the Democrats’ universal health care legislation. It included a hefty tax on the high-priced health care plans enjoyed by many union members and fell far short of the employer mandate that unions were demanding.
It took decades for Congress to address the problem. When, at long last, federal legislation was passed, some people raised constitutional objections, but few took them seriously. The objections required the Supreme Court to adopt unheard-of constitutional theories, hamstringing well-established powers on the basis of hysterical fears about a tyrannical federal government. Even the law’s opponents were surprised when the Court took those objections very seriously.
Every significant political movement creates, or inherits, a compelling image of the people it vows to liberate and serve. The contemporary American right, for instance, idealizes the self-reliant, nuclear family in its modest home, with Bible verses on the wall and a flagpole in the yard. But what image comes to mind when progressives think about the Americans who would benefit from a more egalitarian society? None of the images or phrases currently in vogue are all that inspiring. “Middle class” merely describes a bland, imprecise economic status.
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy had a great idea. He would create an agency, the Peace Corps, to send idealistic young Americans abroad to spread their wealthy nation’s know-how among the impoverished peoples of the world. Lately, public schools in the United States have taken JFK’s idea and turned it around. Why not invite the impoverished peoples of the world to come here to enlighten us? America is still the planet’s wealthiest country, but it is no longer, by international standards, a particularly well-educated one.
For years, teachers’ unions have claimed that education reformers are mounting a “war on teachers.” Now, in the Midwest and Republican-dominated states across the country, we are witnessing what a war on teachers really looks like.
It is not surprising that the focus of the fighting around public employee benefits and collective bargaining is in the industrial Midwest. As noted in the Brookings report The Vital Center: “Today’s employee benefit, job, and income security systems, like so many of the nation’s economic and social practices, were forged in the Midwest." These states have the most to gain economically by modernizing the social compact between the worker, the state, and employer (particularly where the latter two are one and the same).
Last December, I asked a prominent K Street Republican what he thought his party’s top priority would be following its successes in the midterm elections. He didn’t mince words. “Public employee unions are going to get hosed, and they deserve to get hosed,” he told me. So, I wasn’t exactly surprised when Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio put the public unions in their states on a hit list.
President Obama has threatened to veto the war funding bill that passed the House on Thursday night. The president's beef is with a provision to prevent teacher layoffs, which Democrats tacked onto the bill along with several other domestic priorities. To pay for the measure, the House agreed to cut money from some of the president's key education reform initiatives. Obama isn't happy about it. Nor should he be. Here's the back story: Thanks to severe cuts in state budgets, between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs this year.