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Organized labor an easy scapegoat for economic woes, expert says

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Labor expert Robert Bruno says the Great Recession has become a convenient excuse for the vilification of unionized labor.

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1/2720/11 | Phil Ciciora, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-2177; pciciora@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The Great Recession has become a convenient excuse for the vilification of unionized labor, a University of Illinois labor expert says.

The seeds of the economic downturn were sown not by unionized workers, but by the deregulation of the financial industry – an argument that's received scant attention in the mainstream media, says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.

"We've suffered billions of dollars in losses not because of labor unions or collective bargaining agreements, but because of greed, gross mismanagement and downright illegal activity in the financial industry," Bruno said. "Yet labor continues to be an easy target for those who would like to assign blame for our current economic struggles, including all the problems states are having balancing their budgets."

Bruno says the public has seemingly accepted the framework of bloated union contracts and costly public sector workers as espoused by the cacophony of voices on the right without much skepticism or scrutiny.

"I haven't heard or seen much criticism of all this anti-union sentiment, and it's a little surprising given what we know about who was actually at fault for creating the financial crisis," he said.

While enmity toward unions is nothing new, Bruno says the current political climate is so hostile that many traditional friends of labor have now become some of its harshest critics.

"Democrats, frankly, don't demonstrate much courage on this issue," Bruno said. "They figure their friends in labor have nowhere else to go. That's the product of at least 30 years worth of conservative ideology filtering into both major political parties."

Bruno, who has written three books and studies working-class and union studies issues, says that while unionization of the private sector workers has been falling steadily since the 1950s, the number of unionized workers in the public sector has remained relatively stable.

"What that means is, for the first time in the nation's history, more than half of the labor movement is made up of public-sector workers," he said. "To labor's opponents, that signifies that the last stronghold of a well-resourced labor movement is now within the government itself. That's why you're hearing so much anti-government rhetoric these days, because if you can weaken government, that means you can, by extension, weaken labor."

For politicians who have a fixation for cost cutting, the recent cries from the right for labor unions to make significant concessions on wages, pension and health care benefits is a cheap and easy way to score political points while not attempting to solve the underlying problem of tepid job growth.

"It's a cynical ploy on their part," Bruno said. "There should be an acknowledgment that they're asking public servants who, on average, make considerably less than their private sector counterparts, to sacrifice while those who got us into this mess have, for the most part, received golden parachutes. It's the height of irresponsibility to make clerical workers pay the full freight for over 30 years of irresponsible governance at the state and federal level."

To ask labor to compromise is to have them "accept the premise that the problem lies with collective bargaining agreements, and acknowledge that states are in the fix they're in because of labor agreements, which is simply not true," Bruno said.

Bruno would also like to see some rigorous analysis that shows, exactly, how tearing up collective bargaining agreements would stimulate the economy or create new jobs.

"You can talk about restructuring a cost path in terms of benefits, but how does that bring job growth and GDP up to pre-recessionary levels?" he said. "How does that re-regulate the financial industry? It doesn't do any of those things. Clearly, it wasn't union contracts that caused this mess. But it's rare that public officials do any sort of rigorous analysis when there are so many political points to be scored by looking for easy solutions."

Bruno says there's nothing's more problematic in the American political system than the prospects of raising taxes.

"We used to be able to, in some rationale way, when there was a need for additional revenue, get incremental tax increases," he said. "Now, it's the political kiss of death. So it's somewhat extraordinary that Illinois managed to pass a personal and corporate tax increase."

As cash-strapped states like Illinois and California confront the prospects of crippling debt and minimal revenue growth, Bruno says they may have to seek a bailout from the federal government or, in an unprecedented move, declare bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy laws in the private sector allow companies to forego their collective bargaining agreements. According to Bruno, if states were allowed to declare bankruptcy, that could spell the wholesale destruction of all state-based union contracts, as well provisions for pensions and healthcare.

"To do that in one broad stroke, you could, for all intents and purposes, de-unionize the public sector," he said.

Although the prospects of troubled states declaring bankruptcy may seem far-fetched to some, Bruno says the very fact that those conversations are occurring among Republicans ought to give friends of organized labor pause.

"That gives you the sense of just how heated an ideological and political space that organized labor occupies," he said. "Frankly, labor is still a pretty powerful political institution, so it would make a big difference to a lot of workers if that institution is weakened any further."

Editor's note: To contact Robert Bruno, call 630-487-0013; e-mail bbruno@illinois.edu.
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