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Turn Back the Clock 

It's not about the unions. It's about the middle class.

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The demonstrations in Wisconsin are actually less about the care and feeding of unions than they are about the future of America’s middle class. Times are tough for the middle class, as it’s already on the ropes and — thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision — more threatened by big, private money than at any time since the Roaring ’20s.

Anyone who has dealt with unions has a story to tell. Most of them are unflattering. There are those incompetent teachers being protected by seniority. What about pension funds that are threatening cities with bankruptcy? And then there are those trivial and time-consuming grievances. Of course, public unions are even worse because while the private unions are tied to the fortunes of the industry, the public unions, if push comes to shove, simply rely on governments to raise taxes. And, bringing the matter home, when was the last time the City of Spokane won a salary arbitration? Never.

Some years back, I served as the president of the now-defunct Spokane Ballet, and every time we performed in the Opera House we could be certain that the house manager (who had standing as a lead carpenter in the union) would drag things out so we would end up paying overtime.

And then we hear of firefighters who, while drawing full pay from the city, have enough time left over to run their private development businesses. And then there’s the police guild, which prefers to lay off junior officers rather than give in on benefits.

Or take the case of the two impossible professors out at Eastern — they filed upwards of 40 grievances in one year, trivial matters all. And guess what? All were upheld, because the administration at the time was doing the bidding of the faculty union.

Are these the excesses of collective bargaining?

No doubt. But are they the cause of the debt crisis? Columnist Mark Shields says no. He reports that, on average, states without collective bargaining are more in debt than states with strong unions. In fact, some of the growth in public unions is due entirely to the voters.

The powerful CCPOA (that’s the California Correction and Policing Association) is a perfect example. It wasn’t the union that voted up “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” which filled prisons and created more jobs in that sector. But now, the same voters who caused the prisons to be filled complain about the growth of public employee unions.

In any case, even if we could verify Shields’ statement, or at least get a better understanding of why some unions have grown in influence, would that serve to take the collective bargaining issue off the table? I doubt it.

When we look past all the anecdotal annoyances and circumstances, we come face-to-face with a much more important reality: By saving capitalism from itself, unions were critical to the creation of America’s middle class.

You see, Marx was right about the working man — that in a capitalist system, workers are regarded as a unit of labor. But it turns out he was wrong to conclude that their only power was in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Marx’s prediction became moot as, by 1936, FDR’s New Deal policies were being upheld by the Supreme Court — after years of overturning similar policies. Minimum wages were upheld in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, and a year or so later, the Federal National Labor Relations Board statute was upheld in NLRB v. Jones Laughlin Steel. This company had fired several workers for joining a union; the new National Labor Relations Board had ordered them rehired, and the company refused. The Court ruled in favor of the workers.

These cases reflected a more liberal interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause. In the NLRB case, Chief Justice Hughes, writing for the court, stated the new interpretation: “Although activities may be intrastate in character when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relation to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens and obstructions, Congress cannot be denied the power to exercise that control.”

What does all this have to do with Wisconsin? Nothing, directly, but taken together with the right-wing assault on the health care act and the Koch brothers’ war against federal and state laws closely associated with union bargaining rights … well, to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the Interstate Commerce Clause, stupid.

These people are serious about turning back the clock. They want the Interstate Commerce Clause to once again be given a pre-New Deal reading. Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas has actually gone on record as saying he thinks every interstate commerce finding, following 1935’s narrow reading of interstate commerce in Schechter Poultry v. United States, should be overturned.

A forgotten irony is that it was some of these same union members who had long benefited from such court rulings that were first to forget the importance of the Interstate Commerce Clause. Remember the high-water mark of the Reagan presidency? He stood tall against the air traffic controllers and fired them all for not returning to work from a strike. But what’s seldom recalled is that their union, PATCO, believed that Ronny would be on their side because they had bailed on Jimmy Carter and supported Reagan in the 1980 election. Boy, did they have it wrong.

The moral to the story? To sustain a middle class, both union and nonunion workers need laws that provide for minimum wages and decent working conditions and the right of workers to organize.

Forget the budget shortfall — this is what is really at stake in Wisconsin.

If Gov. Walker wins in Wisconsin, expect a fullout assault on the New Deal interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause, with all that forebodes for the future of working people in America.

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