Friday, May 23, 2008

Allan Lichtman: Maryland unions against public interest

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This is one of the most painful columns that I have ever written. My father was a union man. I grew up revering the American union movement. When I ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, I issued a detailed position paper backing the right to organize unions and marched with union members in support of pro-union legislation.

In my view, however, the union movement in Maryland has lost its way in recent years. Too often, unions have lined up on the wrong side of issues to the detriment of the general public and the long-term interests of their members.

The American union movement was always about much more than narrow self-interest. Unions have been forefront of campaigns for social justice, backing such positive initiatives as Social Security, minimum wages, government health care benefits, civil rights laws and aid to education.

In the words of pioneering labor leader Walter Reuther, who headed the United Automobile Workers in the middle years of the 20th century: ‘‘There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak.”

In recognition of labor’s contributions to the commonweal, the federal government intervened on behalf of unions with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. This law established a federal agency to oversee union elections and prevent employers from engaging in such unfair practices as punishing workers for joining a union.

Lost sight of mission

Recently, however, unions in Maryland seemed to have lost sight of Walter Reuther’s broader vision. One of Reuther’s great crusades was preservation of the environment, especially the Great Lakes that so enriched life in his home state of Michigan. Yet unions in Maryland this year joined with industry to lobby against the Maryland Global Warming Solutions Act, which would have required a 25 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. According to Dawn Stoltzfus, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, as quoted in the Baltimore Sun, ‘‘We think they (lawmakers) lost their nerve — the unions had lots of people down here lobbying.”

The unions were worried about fees on the burning of coal — one of the worst environmental pollutants. The unions failed to see that the only viable economy of the future is the green economy and that the well being of their members is threatened by global warming and the destruction of our environment.

In Montgomery County, public employee unions failed to make any contribution to easing the county’s nearly $300 million budget shortfall despite entreaties by courageous County Council members Phil Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg. Instead, unions insisted that the county stick to contracts that include raises of 8 percent in many cases — far exceeding the rate of inflation and most private sector wage agreements.

Many not county residents

I understand that union members are facing hard times, but we all have to make some sacrifices. The result of union intransigence is that county taxpayers are going to be socked with large increases in energy and property taxes on top of the hefty tax increases already imposed by the state government last year. And rather than getting better services, we’ll just be paying a lot more to stay in place. Meanwhile, the more than 30 percent of Montgomery’s public employee union members who live outside the county get a free ride. They reap the benefits of high wage increases without contributing to the county’s tax revenues.

Finally, the Maryland State Teacher’s Association has egregiously endorsed the bringing of legalized slot machine gambling to Maryland. Of course, the leaders of MSTA say they are not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for the children. That’s the constant refrain we’ve heard ever since the legalization of slots became a major issue five years ago.

Never mind the corruption, crime, bankruptcies and gambling addictions that come with legalizing gambling. Never mind that legalized slots are one of the worst forms of regressive taxes. Never mind that examples from other states show that gambling dollars only substitute for other monies allocated to education and do not improve the quality of schools.

What a terrible example MSTA leaders have set for the students in their charge. I call upon the president of MSTA to write an open letter to every parent and child in Maryland’s public school system explaining the union’s decision to support slot machine gambling. Let the stakeholders judge for themselves.

Although Walter Reuther worked tirelessly for the interests of his union members, he also called for ‘‘a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fights for the welfare of the public at large.” The leaders of Maryland’s unions would do well to heed those words today. Otherwise they should expect a decline in the public support that is essential to a viable union movement.

Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and a national political analyst. He can be reached at lichtman@ american.edu.