Modern-day Pirates: the Republicans vs. the Public Sector

So, let’s be clear:  it’s not about the budget.  As the facts have emerged in the 2011 Wisconsin crisis with Governor Scott Walker’s move against public service unions, it is not about Wisconsin lacking funds.  There is no credible way that Walker and his clique can argue that eliminating a worker’s right to collective bargaining saves the state a dime.  Each time that this is raised it becomes a laughable moment.

What we are witnessing is a well-orchestrated effort on the part of the Republicans to cleanse the USA of viable labor unions.  It is really that simple.  While those Democrats who have attacked public service unions, such as New York Governor Cuomo, are little better, they have a different objective, which is more about totally subordinating the unions to their economic agenda and appeasing many conservative voters.  For the Republicans, which have consolidated as a hard-line right-wing party-bloc, the aim is to weaken labor unions into irrelevance and by doing so, eliminate an institution which they believe supports the Democratic Party, as well as other liberal and progressive motions.

At the same time, there is an economic element to what is unfolding.  It is the latest, and perhaps final, steps begun by the Republicans, and those Democrats that subscribe to a neo-liberal economic ideology, to rob the public sector of resources in order to produce gain for private contractors.  In other words, this is nothing more than modern day piracy with conservative forces eyeing the public sector-as they have for more than thirty years-as a location for economic expansion.  The objective is to seize potentially profitable segments of the public sector in order to increase profits for private corporations.  This, then, has nothing to do with public service, increasing efficiency, or saving the taxpayers a cent.  It is nothing short of highway robbery.

So, the political objective is to eliminate unions and the economic agenda is to eliminate public space, privatizing all that may be a potential source of profits.  To carry out a privatization agenda, perhaps better understood as a piracy agenda, the Republicans must eliminate all obstacles.  The obstacles include but are not limited to labor unions.  Thus, central to their strategy must be divide and conquer, an approach that we are witnessing playing out in the realm of education.

What the Right has succeeded in doing in education has been to demonize the teachers’ unions and to place themselves, and their privatization allies, at the forefront of what they wish for the rest of us to understand as ‘education reform.’  The failure of the teachers’ unions and, for that matter, most public service unions, to position themselves as legitimate champions of the public, has led to a situation where the Right can argue that the unions are representatives of special interests.  Thus, the public sector can be cannibalized while some of the victims sit back and rest in some-temporary-comfort that they have yet to have been thrown into the stew.

Regardless of the outcome of the battle in Wisconsin, the good news is that segments of organized labor and their allies are standing up and, indeed, learning from the courage of the Arab democratic revolt thousands of miles away, that people in motion can make an amazing difference.  Yet stubborn and courageous resistance will not be enough.  To that resistance must be a new vision of public service that places the unions as guardians of the public and the public’s interests rather than as guardians of the interests of their members alone.  This means a different sort of unionism, a social justice unionism, but that will be the only way that not only will we succeed in defending the public space, but also in revitalizing a worker’s movement for the 21st century.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member of, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.”  He can be reached at

1 Response

  1. David H. Slavin

    Bill Fletcher misses the point that the two parties are right-wing and extreme right-wing and that the Democrats find this extreme right wing useful to “domesticate” or “housebreak” its own “progressive wing” (the unions, feminists, lgbtq, old civil rights movements). The Republicans herd the leftists into the Democrats’ fold.

    The historic defeats of US labor are directly attributable to the failure of white workers to extend working class solidarity to non-white workers, the only basis upon which working people can create an autonomous politics and fight for their own interests, as opposed to those of either Republican or Democratic “pirates.” Whether that struggle remains within or moves outside the Democratic Party is entirely secondary, even moot, in comparison with the fierce urgency of the white workers repudiating inequality. Ruling elites have succeeded in turning every great labor upheaval in the US, particularly the much-touted New Deal, into an opportunity to reconstruct racial inequality. White workers become willing abettors of the rule of capital through defending racial privileges which are inimical not only to the interests of Black working people but to European Americans as workers.

    Secondly, the attack on public sector unions is an indirect attack on Black and Hispanic workers. Public sector employment has been one of the few places non-whites can compete on an even playing field with white workers. Thus public sector workers (in places where the demographics of Sundown towns, the “white by design” areas of the country that restricted access to Black people, such as in broad reaches of Wisconsin) tend to be more non-white than proportions of population. As Bill points out, the unions have failed to live up to their responsibilities to acts as champions of solidarity with the public. But that’s particularly the case with the non-white “public.” Schools are failing most egregiously to serve non-white children and teens. The “whitening” of teacher work force in NYC and the UFT’s virtual silence on displacing Black and Hispanic teachers is one example.

    If we are going to have social justice unions in the US, as I know Bill desires, the solidarity obligations of such unions to the working class will have to extend beyond the boundaries of the labor movement or even conventional definitions of workers. Thus in Georgia, where I live, a system-wide strike of prison inmates is probably the biggest labor action in the state since WW2. Since over a third of the prisoners in the state (and in Alabama and Mississippi) are European American, this was an historic action, one which represents “the kernel and meaning of the US labor movement” as DuBois said of Black Reconstruction.

    Where are the calls for solidarity with this historic, heroic, interracial general strike of the largest group of “public employees” in Georgia??? Fifty six thousand people are incarcerated in the state, all of them work for a living for the state Dept of Corrections’ “prison industries.” While in most states, inmates are paid a pittance, cents on the dollar, in wages, in Georgia INMATES ARE NOT PAID AT ALL. This indenture is justified of course by claiming that the state is supplying room and board. At great personal risk (of physical violence, torture, loss of privileges, denial of parole, extension of sentence because of “bad time”) Georgia inmates have demanded decent food, medical care, access to information, and freedom from violent intimidation, as well as a wage for their labor. In other words the state of Georgia violates basic human rights, yet the labor movement has ignored these public workers. Are prison workers somehow not workers?

    When inmates get out of prison, they are second class citizens in what Michelle Alexander in her eponymous book has called The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration (in the age of color blindness) has stripped millions of non-whites of basic civil rights (to vote, serve on juries, have access to public housing, loans, etc) and the conviction for a crime (85% non-violent drug offenses) virtually guarantees disbarment from employment (particularly public sector employment. Here lies an interesting contradiction. The growing numbers of Black public sector workers must first successfully navigate the minefield of growing up Black in the US to avoid convictions that would render them ineligible.

    Keep in mind that the Reagan administration put most of the architecture of this “color blind” New Jim Crow in place just in the wake of Reagan’s mass firing of the PATCO Federal air traffic controllers. The two actions worked hand in hand, revealing the weakness of the labor movement in exactly the area solidarity that was the necessary source of labor’s strength. But this labor movement had been historically unavailable when solidarity required a fight for racial equality, even among those unions which ostensibly supported the civil rights movement and legislation.

    If we are to avoid making the historic blunders of the past that have led to defeat after defeat, the class struggle in the Georgia prisons, the class struggle of former inmates to fight for their full citizenship rights, the class struggle for racial equality cannot take a back seat to what’s happening in Wisconsin, much less be entirely ignored. If public workers in Wisconsin can look six thousand miles to Cairo for inspiration and solidarity, they can and must find it in Atlanta.

    David H. Slavin, Decatur GA

    see the Abolish Prisons Conference 28 Feb Montgomery AL

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