It’s a coincidence of timing that this issue of CityBeat contains a news article about a recent panel discussion on “the vanishing middle class.” People familiar with the topic probably already know one of the article’s salient points: Although worker productivity has increased significantly since the mid-1970s, wages for many workers have remained flat or even dropped in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The people benefiting from the increased productivity are the wealthiest one-fifth of Americans, who saw their share of income increase.
Most of us are working harder but we’re not reaping the fruits of our labor.
Another not unconnected trend during that period was the decline in union membership in the United States. In 1983, 20.1 percent of all wage and salary workers were members of a labor union, equating to 17.7 million people. As of last year, that number has dropped to 11.9 percent, or 14.7 million people.
That’s down from the union movement’s peak in the mid-1950s, when about 35 percent of workers — fully one-third of the American workforce — belonged to a union.
But the one area where union membership has remained somewhat steady has been in the public sector, or those workers who work for local, state or federal governments or some other agency that is funded by taxpayer dollars. This includes police and fire departments and public school teachers, for those keeping track.
Currently, 36.2 percent of public sector employees (7.6 million people) belong to a union, compared to just 6.9 percent of private sector employees (7.1 million people).
Now, though, some far-right politicians connected to the Tea Party movement are trying to squash that last bastion. Pending bills introduced in Wisconsin and Ohio, the latter by State Sen. Shannon Jones (R-Springboro), would strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, including the use of binding arbitration with the public safety forces.
The anti-union factions — led by Jones and Gov. John Kasich here and by Gov. Scott Walker in the Badger State — are blaming the unions for the fiscal woes being suffered by state and local governments.
To buttress their argument, the anti-union faction points to a bogus analysis by the conservative Buckeye Institute that alleges public workers earn up to 25 percent more than their counterparts in the private sector.
What the analysis doesn’t take into account are other factors like education and training. According to the nonpartisan, less ideologically driven Economic Policy Institute, full-time state and local employees and school employees are under-compensated by 6 percent in Ohio, in comparison to otherwise similar private sector workers. When comparisons are adjusted for differences in annual hours worked, the gap still remains, although at the lower 3.5 percent.
Also, Ohio’s public sector workers are better educated than private-sector workers, according to the study. About 49 percent of public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared to 26 percent of private-sector workers.
More importantly, compensation for public sector workers has little to do with the budget crisis facing states.
Policy Matters Ohio found that deficits are slightly higher in states that don’t allow collective bargaining (averaging 16.7 percent) than in those that allow it (16.2 percent).
Additionally, state employees are sympathetic to the problems facing lawmakers. During the past nine years, they’ve accepted five years of pay freezes. Moreover, they’ve agreed to pay cuts, furloughs and freezes in some step increases. Workers are doing their fair share.
The fact is that employee payroll in Ohio comprises just 9 percent of the state’s budget. Even if every state worker was laid off, it wouldn’t offset the $8 billion deficit.
Public sector workers are being made scapegoats for bad economic policies pushed by Libertarians and the Far Right. Ohio’s income tax has been slashed by 21 percent since 2005, but there’s been no coherent plan put forth to operate with less revenues.
The reality is that the actions are part of a “starve the beast” strategy advanced by anti-government ideologues. They want to use financial crises as an excuse to significantly reduce the size of government at all levels.
As first revealed by Mother Jones magazine, the anti-union efforts are being bankrolled by the notorious Koch brothers, the real-world equivalent of Lex Luthor. The billionaire brothers, David and Charles, control Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate that is the second-largest privately owned company in the United States.
Born into extreme wealth, the brothers have never had to do a hard day’s work in their privileged lives or had to worry about how they will feed their families. Now, to increase their profit margins, they bankroll various causes that will benefit themselves at the expense of the common good.
For example, when David Koch ran as vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, his platform called for abolishing Social Security, all federal regulatory agencies and public schools, among other wacky, dangerous ideas. The Libertarians lost back then, but now the Kochs are content to give stacks of cash to Republican candidates that do their bidding.
The Kochs were among the largest contributors to Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, and provided much of the capital for the Tea Party movement and its special interest cover group, Americans for Prosperity (ASP), which like to pose as grassroots groups unconnected to Big Business. Among those speaking on behalf of the bill during recent hearings in Columbus was Rebecca Heimlich, ASP’s Ohio director. Heimlich — wife of ex-County Commissioner Phil Heimlich — parroted the debunked claim about public sector pay.
So, before we rush into abolishing collective bargaining, let’s examine the facts and remember some history. Here’s what President Obama said about the American labor movement in September, at a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee.
“It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today,” Obama said. “The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.”
A recent exchange with Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz reminded me of Sgt. Schultz, a character on the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
I’m not a particular fan of the show, which was about a group of Allied soldiers in a German prison camp during World War II who secretly hatched all manner of subversive hijinks. But the one thing I found amusing was Schultz.
As played by actor John Banner, Schultz was an overweight, bumbling Nazi guard who liked the prisoners and willingly turned a blind eye to what was going on in front of his face.
“I know nothing, I see nothing and I say nothing!” Schultz would famously declare, with his eyes shut tightly, as he stumbled onto the latest Allied plot.
That same defense is being invoked by Bortz, in relation to an item CityBeat reported on its blog Feb. 18. We wrote about a private meeting in which three potential replacements for Councilman Jeff Berding — who is resigning — were interviewed by a group of business executives that belong to the secretive, powerful Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC).
The three candidates were Charterite Kevin Flynn and Republicans Crystal Faulkner and Brad Wenstrup.
(It should be noted that the Charter Committee doesn’t qualify as a true political party under Ohio law, even though people often treat it that way. In fact, Bortz is a registered Republican while Flynn is a registered Democrat, according to the Board of Elections.)
Reliable sources informed us about the meeting. They said several CEOs — including Reds owner Bob Castellini, North American Properties president Tom Williams and Western & Southern CEO John Barrett — questioned the candidates. Our sources told us that Berding and Bortz were present at the meeting’s start.
Bortz, who officially gets to appoint Berding’s replacement, contacted us to vehemently deny any involvement with the meeting. “I did not attend the meeting in question,” Bortz said. “Not the beginning, not the middle, not the end. Nor was I invited to any such meeting. Nor was I even aware of the meeting.”
Fair enough. We’ll take Bortz at his word, but pardon us if we remain skeptical based on our experience with him.
That’s because CityBeat once interviewed Bortz to listen about why he felt he didn’t have a conflict of interest voting on matters related to the proposed streetcar system. During the interview, Bortz never revealed he already had an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission stating he did have a conflict, which was revealed later. (Must’ve just slipped his mind.)
And it’s also because Bortz told us that he hasn’t made up his mind about seeking a fourth council term this fall, even though we’ve been told by Charter members and business associates that he’s already told them he won’t run.
Meanwhile, our sources about the CBC meeting have never steered us wrong before.
So, maybe Bortz didn’t really attend the private powwow or even know about it. That’s what he says. We’ll leave it up to our readers to gauge his credibility.