The 19th-century robber baron Jay Gould once said, "I can hire half the working class to shoot the other half."Gould's vision of class warfare is being played out today in the shameful attacks on public employees. These attacks are secretly financed and planned by modern-day Jay Goulds who aim to keep their own taxes low. Some vastly powerful corporations and billionaires want to cripple all unions and turn America into a low-wage banana republic.
They're succeeding. Across the country, new governors and new legislatures are demanding cuts to jobs, pensions and concessions from public employee unions. Their demands are nothing more than payback for the billions of dollars that the ultra-rich have poured into political campaigns.
Scapegoating public employees has almost become a sport. In New York City, a city councilman accused sanitation workers of a deliberate slowdown in removing snow during the Christmas blizzard. It turned out that slow snow removal was actually caused by the layoffs of 400 workers and the failure to call a snow emergency quickly enough. (That's why actress Julianna Margulies thanked the Teamsters for digging out New York in her acceptance speech for a SAG award.) In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich wants to ban collective bargaining for public employee unions and get rid of the prevailing wage. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker suggests banishing unions for government workers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he won cooperation from unions because he threatened "to take a bat out and hit you."
Christie's threat isn't funny to anyone who remembers the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968. All the workers wanted was to earn above-starvation wages and to be respected as human beings. Peaceful workers were gassed, dragged, arrested and threatened by armed National Guardsmen in tanks.
Only after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while in Memphis supporting the struggle did city officials come to their senses and recognize Local 1733 of AFSCME as the bargaining representative for the sanitation workers. Just think where those workers would be today without a union.
It's time for a reality check. Government employees did not blow a hole in any state budget, including Michigan. Economist Dean Baker points out that shortfalls were almost entirely caused by the recession. "If revenue had increased in step with normal growth (2.4 percent real growth, plus inflation), state and local governments would have had an additional $290 billion since the start of the downturn," Baker notes.
Public employees didn't create a huge housing bubble. Wall Street did that. And public employees didn't cause the Great Recession through reckless speculation. Wall Street did that, too.
State governments didn't get $3 trillion dollars in loans from the Federal Reserve and profit from those loans by relending them. Again, that was Wall Street.
It's also important to remember, as economist Robert Reich points out, that the typical public employee's pension is only $19,000 a year.
These attacks on working families and government workers are nothing more than divide-and-conquer tactics aimed at weakening or eliminating all unions.
I hope my brothers and sisters in private-sector unions don't fall for them. Because after they've finished with government workers, they'll be coming after you, too.
James P. Hoffa is president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org