Are you sitting down? Perhaps still in bed. Good.
Because although many of you know this, many do not.
The sainted Ronald Reagan, once president of the United States, was a union member. In fact, he belonged to at least two unions at the same time. Without his union memberships, he couldn’t have been hired by General Electric as a spokesman. Which is what, really, first introduced him to the wider American public.
Not only was Mr. Reagan a union member, he was president of one of his unions.
Clearly those in state legislatures who revere his memory have either forgotten this or are too young even to have known about it.
We mention this, of course, in the wake of anti-union legislation passed this week in the state of Michigan with the approval and signature of that state’s governor, Rick Snyder.
Today we wonder how many of Michigan’s state representatives and senators had forbearers with union membership. Say, for example, between the years of 1940 to 1980.
How many fathers, not to mention mothers, were enrolled in unions in Michigan in those years when unions were strong. Without them the then burgeoning middle-class couldn’t have exploded into a consumer nation that now, while not anti-union, prefers to think of unions as trouble-makers, job-thiefs, people who greased the skids for outsourcing, or off-shoring, as Mr.Romney liked to call it.
It is completely true that the unions in this country have often behaved like bullies, forcing settlements in their favor by threatening to strike vital industries and manufacturing plants. Through strike threats and walkouts and sitdowns and demonstrations of all kinds, unions were the bad guys.
And it is completely true that unions extracted billions of dollars from otherwise reluctant employers so that their children could be clothed, fed, schooled, and sent into the world as other children were.
This, of course, ignores the many, many instances of unions who were ripped off by their very own officers.
But today we want to call up from the recesses of our memories those names of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who did once belong to the United Auto Workers union, the Confederation of Labor, the Teamsters, and unions that oversaw the working conditions of teachers, nurses, actors, postal workers, government bureaucrats, writers, song-writers, directors and producers, miners, longshoremen, steel workers.
None of us should be embarrassed by these former union members. We should rather be proud of their unity and purpose, because without those two things, this country would be far from what it is today.
The legislation in Michigan, which makes that state a “right to work” state, should not have come as a surprise to alert voters there. Despite the fact that Governor Snyder all along said that union-busting was not on his agenda, there were road signs aplenty that for him to do so was not far off the highway.
Mr. Snyder had earlier in the year decided that the pride of America – one man, one vote – was out-of-date. He created Emergency Fiscal Managers who were given the absolute power to overrule budgets, proposals, plans put forward by the electorate. With a sweep of their pens, Snyder’s new fiscal czars could simply erase everything people had favored legally at the ballot box. Whole townships, entire educational systems, complete community-directed programs ceased to be democratic, with a small d.
Which is to say, you went out in November to vote for your city councilmen, or your local school board members, and later, on whatever pretext he can find, the Governor disagrees with your choices and declares a fiscal emergency, appointing an Emergency Manager to take over and do what he (the governor) wanted in the first place.
Putting it simply, if Governor Snyder disapproves of a local school board’s politics, or even a mayor’s office, he now has the right to wipe off the face of Michigan’s map what he finds distasteful —could this mean Democrats which a capital D? Then he replaces what he dislikes with something Republican instead. And all this is done in the name of fiscal responsibility, whether or not such would be the case.
In this latest incidence of pretending to act in the name of “freedom of choice,” i.e., open shops where workers do not have to join a union to receive union benefits, commentators around the country are poking gigantic holes in Snyder’s reasoning. Because what has usually happened in right to work states is that salaries decline, health standards decline, food stamps take an upward jump, and a detested two-tier pay package is instituted that just about guarantees workers in the second tier, those that are not union members, will get it in the neck.
One Upper Peninsula truck driver said: “Governor Snyder wants to put a king over our city.” Actually, it seemed as though Governor Snyder and many of his Republican colleagues in state houses around the country want to be kings.
Why was this decision made so suddenly and, as people like to say, under the cover of darkness, with no warning, no public debate, not even much discussion on the floors of Michigan’s two houses?
The answer comes in two parts: Mr. Snyder had taken the king’s dime from the Koch brothers, who brook no delay. And secondly, and probably even more important, with a national loss in last month’s election, Republicans all across the country are rushing to change the social and economic landscape in their states before it’s too late.
This second clause really doesn’t work, because there will be hundreds of lawsuits and court actions that delay legislation like this but which will cost all taxpayers of Michigan, and Wisconsin and Ohio and Florida and Pennsylvania huge fees to defend.
Big labor threatens to get revenge at the ballot box in 2014. It might. Then again, that’s two years of mistreatment, of continuing worry and poverty, of children not taught and hospitals closing. For along with making these states impregnable Republican fortresses, a squeezed middle class grows smaller and weaker and sinks ever closer to outright poverty.
Without doubt, what’s happening in Michigan — and Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio — is politically motivated. Just as voter suppression schemes in those states were.
This entire “freedom of choice” gimick — the new Republican mantra — is designed to make big labor as a force in elections to come impotent.
Unions made this country great from World War II until 1980. To squash them now ignores our history, not to mention the value of the middle class.
Our bet is that Governor Snyder, and the others, reached their own exalted positions by virtue of unionized teachers, unionized health care, unionized jobs somewhere in their lives.
Being anti-union does not automatically elevate you to the 2 per cent status so many seek to achieve. It only makes you another captive of Big Money with Big Plans to eliminate all competition and all political discourse.
The entire country will regret these Republican schemes that pass so easily in Republican dominated state houses. And the future will be filled with even greater dissention and anger and partisanship.
Help! Somebody help!