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Some Republican elected officials have now officially “jumped the shark” in their campaign to eliminate unions.

“Jump the shark” refers to a point in a television program’s history where the plot spins off into absurd story lines, marking a noticeable decline in credulity. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana jumped the shark when he recently proclaimed that members of public employee unions are the nation’s “privileged elite.”

Really? Municipal garbage workers are the new privileged elite? Police officers and firefighters and teachers and tree trimmers are the nation’s privileged elite? Not our elected officials who have, over time, given themselves the most generous benefit and pension packages known to mankind? Or the privileged financial elites like Wall Street investment bank titans and hedge fund managers who gamble recklessly with other people’s money, and by a deliberate falsehood preserved in our nation’s tax code, have managed to have their incomes declared “capital gains” and taxed at a maximum of 15 percent though they don’t invest a dime of their own personal capital?

No, those privileged folks are protected by a gazillion dollars worth of campaign contributions, so let’s attack public workers instead. Let’s target public employees who haven’t yet been as decimated as private workers by the massive Wall Street fraud that gave us a global economic meltdown and cost the nation more than 9 million jobs and trillions of dollars of debt.

It’s as if some have decided that since millions of middle-class workers have been and are being squeezed into poverty, we should bring the entire middle-class down to the lowest common denominator.

Indiana’s Daniels, who is openly tossing his hat into the 2012 GOP presidential race, decertified public employee unions in his state on his first day in office, and now says public employee unions “are the most powerful special interests in America.”

Balderdash. If public employee unions were the most powerful special interests in the nation, we’d be treating them like Wall Street bankers — no accountability and no consequences for failure. Let’s face it, our government didn’t require Wall Street and the financial elite to alter contracts with employees, even after they failed miserably. We funneled billions in taxpayer funds to allow them to reward employees with bonuses, because, gasp, they had a contract. But somehow it’s urgent to break contracts with public employees? The hypocrisy is obvious and staggering.

What’s gotten ignored in the debate about public employee unions is the billions of dollars lost by pension funds when Wall Street investment banks sold fund administrators the very same toxic derivatives that the banks simultaneously bet against with their own bank funds.

California’s public employee pension fund, CalPERS, the nation’s largest pension fund, lost more than $100 billion as a result of Wall Street’s shenanigans. Notice who got bailed out and was made whole? Sure wasn’t pension funds, homeowners, small businesses or laid-off workers.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s war on public employees is revealed for what it is — an opportunistic shark jump to promote his political career — when he insists on stripping collective bargaining rights even after the state’s public employee unions have agreed to every pay and benefit cut Walker suggested.

Each state, municipality and school district has the right, even the duty, to negotiate terms in public employee contracts that have grown too generous, and to seek larger employee contributions to pension plans that are under-funded. If there are problems with public employee contracts — and there are— fix them. Don’t use our ongoing financial crisis to promote presidential ambitions, and, in the process, undermine one of the most significant bulwarks for the development of a thriving middle-class in our nation’s history.

What we really ought to be discussing is how and why the working middle class has lost so much economic ground in the last three decades — the only economic class in the U.S. that earns less in real dollars than it did 30 years ago — and what we can do to reverse its decline, restoring the dream of upward mobility for hardworking Americans that is vanishing before our eyes.

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