Eventually my dad got out of the business. I remember him telling me that it was because of unions, but it really seemed due to large janitorial firms that were snatching up all the business from the small operators. I don't remember the logic behind his anti-union statements, just the sentiment. Maybe he couldn't compete with the big companies on salaries (he also got in trouble with the federal government because he would pay workers cash, in order to avoid paying the corporate part of Medicare and Social Security taxes). But now, thinking back on it, most likely it was that big companies were able to underbid him, or were large enough to provide janitorial services for all the stores in a chain, or they used their high-level business connections to schmooze with company bigwigs to get new work. Big businesses will trounce one-man operations every time.
And so it went with my dad. He folded his janitorial business and went into real estate, working for a small company. During that period I started college and moved out, and eventually got married. Not long after that my dad quit real estate -- big companies with offices city- and nation-wide were crushing him, cutting deals that he couldn't match. He went to work for the metropolitan bus company as a driver. Eventually he wearied of this (he had no patience for old ladies that dawdled as they boarded the bus with all their packages) and became a bus cleaner, working nights in the garage clearing the buses of the detritus from the day. After 20-some years on the job he retired.
My dad only has a high school education. But in retirement he has a decent pension and Social Security, and has full medical benefits -- my mom and dad pay a fraction of what my wife and I do for health insurance every month. And his union medical benefits even paid for the pacemaker they installed a few years ago, probably saving his life. My parents live in a small house in rural Minnesota. Hardly an opulent lifestyle, but they're comfortable enough and even had enough money to buy a fixer-upper in a small town to renovate it for resale.
What made this possible? The union he worked for, the government job he had for the last 20-odd years of his working life, and the Social Security Administration he tried to stiff when he ran his own business.
I've got a college education and have worked in well-paying tech jobs. I've never been a union member, and don't particularly like the tactics that unions have used. I don't like the antagonistic attitude they foster against companies, or the silly work rules and featherbedding they negotiate. But those who complain of the hard-ball tactics unions use neglect to mention the even harsher tactics corporations used to try to crush them, often conspiring with government to use lethal force in the early years of the union movement.
But given all that history my dad is inexplicably a rabid Tea Party conservative, who rants about Obama's socialist policies ruining this country. This is the magic of the conservative spin machine. They are able to make people believe things that are against their best interests again and again. How? It's the oldest game in the political book: divide and conquer.
During the last 15 years the Republican party has been a political monolith. There is only one Republican party line and anyone who strays from it is put down quickly: abortion, tax cuts, the war in Iraq, you name it. Except in one area: immigration reform. On the one hand guys like Bush and McCain wanted to liberalize immigration and allow more immigrant labor in the country. On the other hand the anti-immigrant forces -- like my dad -- blamed every problem in this country on illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly Hispanic ones. These attacks usually have a nasty racist undercurrent.
So, over the last thirty years businesses and country club Republicans have been undermining the earning power of low-income Americans by hiring illegal immigrants, while cracker conservatives have been blaming those illegal immigrants for taking away jobs from low-income Americans. Jobs like picking tomatoes, cleaning hotel rooms and cutting up chickens -- all jobs that are back-breaking and often dangerous, and pay far too little for most Americans to survive on.
Meanwhile, the private-sector unions that my dad blamed for his business's demise have all but disappeared. Corporate union busting tactics -- inspired by Reagan's breakup of the air traffic controllers union and the influx of immigrant labor destroyed them. And now that basically all private sector unions in construction, janitorial services and meat packing are gone, Republicans like McCain have now changed their tune and are adopting the anti-immigrant fervor.
That brings us to the current day. After turning low-income Americans against illegal immigrants, the Republicans are now turning low-income workers against unionized government workers in states like Wisconsin. They are making an all-out attack on the last vestiges of unions in this country, characterizing them as lazy and overpaid.
The New York Times investigated public vs. private sector pay. From the numbers they cite I'm not clear on why people think government employees are so overpaid:
The janitors who buff floors and empty wastebaskets for the State of California earn a median wage of a little over $31,000 a year, which is 45 percent more than janitors in the private sector earn there. Georgia’s janitors, by contrast, earn less than $21,000, about 6 percent below their private sector counterparts.
First, even if you include medical and retirement benefits in those numbers, those salaries are appallingly small, much less than what the average American makes.
And second, why do public-sector janitors in California make more than private sector janitors? Could it have anything to do with a steady supply of illegal immigrants in the private sector? And third, could the absence of unions have anything to do with the scathingly low pay of public-sector janitors in Georgia?
No matter how you slice it, even the "highly paid" public-sector janitors who make $31,000 in California are living on abysmally low salaries. And the private-sector janitors who are making 45% less are pulling down a scant $21K. How could a guy like my dad, with six kids and a stay-at-home-wife, possibly make it $21K? How could you even afford a place to live in California? Much less buy a house? Or send your kids to college?
But if you dig deeper:
When workers are divided into two groups — those with bachelor’s degrees and higher and those without — a very different pattern emerges. State workers with college degrees earn less, often substantially less, than private sector workers with the same education in all but three states — Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.
This is the core of what unions do: make it possible for regular, red-blooded, high-school-graduated, beef-eating, beer-drinking, NASCAR-watching Americans to make enough money to live and retire on. Well-educated people who have more personal leverage with employers can make more money in the private sector than in government, where employers have less latitude to give raises and merit pay. What a surprise.
Republicans like Scott Walker are hell-bent on destroying the unions, making sure that the least-well off in this country have even less power than they already do.
But destroying public sector unions and reducing wages of public sector employees will result in the reduction of wages in the private sector as well. As the incentive for working in government goes away, there'll be more competition for private sector jobs, which will drive wages down. It's Econ 101.
And it's not going to end there. A major problem for many state and local governments is overcommitted pension funds. Republicans are attacking these next, proposing 401(k) style plans instead. But many public pensions are in serious trouble right now, and no doubt Republicans will propose the private-sector response: foist the problem on someone else. Several airlines have already used this trick, intentionally underfunding pension funds and then dumping their obligations on the federal government after declaring bankruptcy.
Will the Republicans succeed at defunding existing public pensions and destroying my father's "cushy" lifestyle before he dies? I hope not. But maybe then my dad will finally get it.
The genius of the Republican propaganda machine is that they are able to take guys like my dad, whose entire life history reflects the propensity of big companies to crush the little guy, and turn them against institutions like unions, Social Security and Medicare that gave them a shot at decent life and retirement.
Because in the end, this is a very rich country. There's more than enough wealth to pay for decent retirements for all Americans like my dad. But corporations and guys like the Koch brothers have used their position to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us (a good example of this is the recent runup of gas prices because of instability in the Middle East -- no real disruptions in the oil supply have occurred, but it's a great excuse to jack up prices).
The Kochs need American workers more than American workers need the Kochs. The people who actually do the work of the Koch companies are responsible for the vast wealth generated, not the Kochs. We need the people who drill oil, clean floors, drive trucks, build houses, design buildings, pave roads, grow food and cut up meat. Those people need to make a decent living so that they can afford to buy the stuff that makes our economy work. We don't need highly paid corporate execs like the Kochs who do no actual work and inherited their positions through the divine right of kings.
The Republicans are using their divide and conquer strategy on the people in the mean streets, getting the poor and middle class to duke it out over crumbs while they and the other corporate elites eat brie and swill champagne in the penthouse.
Unions ain't perfect. But they're the only shot at a decent life most regular Joes have in an age where Walmart has dismantled every mom-and-pop outfit in the country.
I think this joke my wife just got in an email today after I had written the above pretty much sums it up:
A CEO, a tea party activist and a public union employee are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies laid out before them.
The CEO takes eleven cookies for himself, turns to the Tea Partyer and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie."