Jefferson Cowie: Beyond Ohio: Why Public Sector Unions Need to Show Solidarity for Private Sector Workers

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jefferson Cowie teaches at Cornell University and is the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.

Pro-labor forces appear en route to win an important battle in Ohio on Tuesday, but the greater war they’re engaged in is very much undecided. As significant as issues like taxes, bargaining, and benefits are for the health of the country’s public sector unions, their real savior has largely gone unspoken in this most recent battle—namely, the bolstering of pay and benefits in the private sector. Progressives will no doubt be tempted to celebrate their victory—not least because it marks a setback for Governor Kasich, and a good omen for Obama’s struggle for this key swing state in 2012—but they should also be wary of myopia.

Anti-labor forces certainly have their eyes set on the broader terrain. When Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker recently declared that “public employees can’t be haves, while private sector employees are have-nots,” he was peddling an obvious half-truth, but also suggesting the outlines of a pernicious anti-labor strategy. Republicans gladly acknowledge the divide in our economy that often places many of private sector workers on the side of have-nots—only to exploit it by mobilizing resentment against those with relative security. Public unions should be thinking of ways to help pull up their embattled fellow laborers in the private sector—or risk being dragged down themselves.

THE LATEST POLLING in Ohio gives the pro-labor forces a 25 point lead in the referendum to repeal legislation that effectively gutted collective bargaining for the state’s public workers. The unions appear to be succeeding for a number of reasons. First, there does seem to be an important groundswell—from Wall Street to Oakland—against these dramatic attacks on working people. Beyond that, the most important factor is labor’s pouring of massive funds into the struggle, which puts this on a financial par with a stiff gubernatorial race. Also at play is Republican hubris, evidenced by their inclusion of firefighters and police in the legislation. Safety workers are both beloved and conservative—at least until their turf is attacked. Then they tend to shun their social conservatism and turn out the troops....

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