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Frank Hammer: Right-wing encourages jealousy among different sectors of the workers

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Across the country, debate continues to rage about public sector workers versus certain state governments. In Wisconsin today, Governor Walker talked about the necessity of him sticking to his guns. That means the union needs to give up its collective bargaining rights, or at least most of them. He talked today about how one of the provisions of his bill will allow union members not to pay their dues, and they could use what he says will amount to almost $1,000 a year towards the new pension and health care benefits contributions he’d like them to be making. Of course, the unions respond [that] this is just another piece of trying to break the union altogether. Now joining us to talk about all of this is a longtime trade unionist, Frank Hammer. He’s a adjunct faculty member in labor studies at the University of Indiana and Wayne State University. He’s the former president of United Auto Workers local at the GM powertrain plant in Warren, Michigan. And he joins us now from Detroit. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So one of the things that’s been interesting in the battle in Wisconsin is the kind of publicity and advertising, television advertising, that attempts to split the workers in the private sector from the workers in the public sector, a lot of specific references to three plants, Kohler plumbing, Mercury Marine, and Harley Davidson, three big factories in Wisconsin where the workers took a two-tier contract agreement, more or less under threat that the factories would leave Wisconsin if they didn’t agree with it, so that workers that are already there are going to make around $22.50 an hour and they have a five-year wage freeze, new workers are going to start at $14.50 an hour. And then these people are being told, well, you should support the governor so that public sector workers get cut as well, because then it will all be fair. So what do you make–you were always mostly–you were in the private sector. What do you make of this split they’re trying to engineer, at least?

HAMMER: Well, they’ve been using a different game with private sector workers, and, just like as you mentioned, with the threat of taking our livelihoods away from us and sending them to non-union areas or to overseas. So that’s been their leverage, especially with the free trade agreements that have been passed over the last 20 years. So they don’t have that leverage on public workers. They can’t move the government of Wisconsin to North Carolina, you know, and govern Wisconsin from there.

JAY: Not yet, anyway.

HAMMER: Not yet, anyway. Correct. So they have to figure out some kind of other angle. And, you know, every time they attack one sector of the workforce, you know, they use that to bring along the other sector of the workforce and slowly but surely ratchet us down to the most common level of just, you know, survival, which is what they’re interested in giving us and nothing more.

JAY: Yeah, I know sometimes when I talk to un-unionized, lower-paid workers, they’re very–you can get–hear resentment about higher-paid, unionized private sector workers. But how–what are you hearing? Is this–amongst the workers you’re talking to? Is this having an impact, that people resent the sort of job security, for example, they say that public sector workers have that private don’t?

HAMMER: Yeah, I think that the comparison of public workers and private workers, you have to remember, are a very small circle in regards to the whole entire working class in the US. I mean, the entire working class is about 80 million strong in the US, and between public and private, we’re talking about, you know, one in eight, maybe one in nine that are actually members of unions. So the vast majority of working-class Americans don’t enjoy the benefits of either private sector workers in unions or public sector workers in unions. And in my experience, jealousy is a really–an amazingly destructive human emotion. And folks like the Koch brothers and all these anti-union institutions in the US are making use of this ingredient of jealousy to say, well, if I can’t have it (I’m speaking as a non-union worker), then why should they have it? And it’s jealousy gone amok, and it’s being stirred and manipulated by folks like the Koch brothers, who would like to do away with all collective organization of the working class as a whole. So, now, a friend of mine today told me they saw an article in The New York Times quoting a UAW member from a Jaynesville plant who was laid off, came to Michigan, got laid off, went back to Jaynesville. He was unemployed. And he’s supporting [Scott] Walker because he’s feeling like, well, if I’m losing what I’ve lost and I’m now being asked to pay taxes to pay for what public workers now have that he doesn’t have, then he feels resentment and doesn’t want to do it. So I think it’s a question of unions reaching out to the non-union sector, reaching out to the community, to explain that, you know, unions are the best thing since sliced bread, and the more of us that gather inside unions and work for our behalf, the better off we’re going to be. As long as we non-union workers gang up on union workers, we’re all going to lose.

JAY: How much fault, if you can use the word, do you put towards the unions and union leadership for over the last few decades being, you know, not (at least some people say) as vigorous about unionizing non-unionized workers as they could have been? Kind of, you know, certain sectors of the working class got very privileged, and most of the other working class, as you say, became unorganized completely, and so now maybe is that a little bit of chickens coming home to roost here?

HAMMER: There’s certainly an element of that. I mean, George Meany back in the ’50s thought that they didn’t have to go and organize the non-union sector. We had 35 percent organized at our high point in the ’50s and did not think much of–no need to go out and organize the rest of the workers in the US. And that’s, you know, been a prevailing sort of a frame of reference for most of organized labor through the end of last century. And I think that even in terms of my own union, the UAW, the organizing department used to not be a very active department until the last decade or two of the last century. And then it was sort of like, well, how do we do this, or we’re out of their league, sort of, to understand how to go about doing it, especially against sophisticated employers that had all kinds of tactics for keeping unions out. So, yeah, we’re sort of light years behind in this campaign to win workers to unions. And, by the way, the US government certainly is not helping us any, because we’re not getting the legislation that labor’s been looking for, including the Employee Free Choice Act, of which there was much promise at the beginning of the Obama administration. And now, I mean, nobody hardly ever mentions it. And so long as it’s difficult for workers to organize into unions, we’re going to continue to have this divide.

JAY: You’ve been on the phone talking to people in Wisconsin. What are you hearing?

HAMMER: Well, interesting you should say. I just talked today with a member of the school board in Milwaukee who himself was a teacher for 18 years, and he had just heard that some labor council, central labor council, somewhere in mid-Wisconsin, were talking about supporting their public employee union brothers and sisters and speaking about a general strike, which this country hasn’t seen in decades. So he said to me that he has never seen anything like this, that he’s incredibly hopeful. And the feeling I have is that oftentimes management in the private sector–and maybe here we’re talking about Governor Walker and the public sector–is maybe doing a lot more for union organization than the unions could ever do, by engaging in this wholesale attack on the brothers and sisters in the public sector. And I think that it’s sort of waking up this labor movement and it’s bringing together a very disparate element who work in the state, from faculty members at the University of Wisconsin to people who clear snow, and they’re saying, oh my God, we’re all in the same boat, and they’re beginning dialogs among workers who haven’t had dialogs in a long time. So I think that the people I have talked to have–feel incredibly positive and feel very energized that this is what’s unfolding in Wisconsin is a real–what this particular brother said was a real mass movement.

JAY: Well, a general strike would be a rather dramatic new development. We haven’t seen that for decades.

HAMMER: Correct. And I haven’t been able to verify it, but he told me that there was a central labor council that is deliberating engaging in such, you know, concerted activities on behalf of the public workers.

JAY: Yeah, we heard something similar from someone that works in one of the big unions at the–near the level of leadership, that even at the level of leadership of some of the major unions there’s a conversation. The words “general strike” have actually crossed people’s lips, which is something quite new. When you talk to people in Wisconsin, how do they deal with this argument that some of the Walker supporters are saying, that Walker has a mandate for this? There was an election and he got voted in, he said he was going to do this, and now he’s doing it.

HAMMER: Well, I–what I’ve heard from the calls that I’ve made is that, yeah, he talked about demanding concessions from public workers, but they don’t recall that part of his vocabulary was doing away with their right to collectively bargain, which is in effect what he’s doing. And they were saying to me that this was a new element since he was elected. And now what is apparent is that this is actually a national strategy, initiated by the likes of the Koch brothers and other elites who are seeing this as an opportunity to do away with unions and using this crisis as the opportunity to do that. So they don’t–their impression was that, no, that, yeah, they’re willing to make concessions, and they understand that the states are hard-put right now because they have to balance their budgets, but they don’t think that the electorate in Wisconsin were endorsing the idea of doing away with the power of collective bargaining for public employees.

JAY: And do you think it’s a mistake of the Wisconsin workers to have so readily accepted to compromise on the economic issues in terms of paying into their health plan and pension plan? And I raise that from two points. It kind of buys into the narrative that the deficit is the real problem, not lack of taxation. As I mentioned, the estate tax alone would take–if they had actually imposed any kind of serious state estate tax at the state level in Wisconsin, they could pay off their debt rather quickly, and certainly a couple of points more on upper-bracket income tax. And there’s some very small measures that could be taken that would create a lot more money than they’re going to get out of these compromises.

HAMMER: Yeah. I think that, I mean, we have to look at the strategy on the part of the elite, that, you know, in the short run they want the unions to make all these concessions; in the long run, yeah, they’d rather do away with collective bargaining and union rights altogether. And so, you know, they’ve put out their maximum demand: we want to do away with you, and, well, if we just get the concessions that we wanted by using this mechanism, then, you know, we’ll be satisfied with that for now and we’ll come back for the rest later. So it seems to me that–on the part of the public workers unions, that, you know, they ought to–instead of trying to appease by saying, well, you know, we’ll be willing to give you–we’ll be willing to contribute to our pensions, we’ll be willing to contribute to our health care, that sort of to say, well, well, wait a minute, not so fast; how did we get into this mess to begin with? It certainly wasn’t the public sector unions that created this problem. And, you know, they should be going back to saying that, you know, we’re public servants. We make reasonably good incomes. We’re not the source–and we have a generally stable lifestyle. But we’re not the source of the problem. The source of the problem came from Wall Street, came from a mortgage crisis. And why are we now picking on our health care and our pensions? So I think that, you know, some of the suggestions that you made would certainly be a good response on the part of the labor movement to highlight that we don’t accept responsibility for what’s happened and we’re willing to work with the government to find real solutions that don’t attack our standard of living.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Frank.

HAMMER: Appreciate it.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate button somewhere near this player, because if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

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Frank Hammer is a member of the Real News Network Board of Directors, and has been a social justice activist for nearly 50 years. He spent the last 40 years in the labor movement as an autoworker and a member, elected officer, staff representative, and now retiree of the United Auto Workers. Frank was the former president of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association in Detroit, and he currently represents the association as a member of the Michigan State Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. He is a lecturer in the Labor Studies Programs at Wayne State and Indiana Universities. He’s a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, an activist with South East Michigan Jobs with Justice, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW-UAW), and the Autoworker Caravan.