The labor movement is no stranger to conflict. By definition, it involves organizing workers to fight aggressively against a larger, more powerful foe. Periods of conflict have ebbed and flowed over the course of labor's history, some moments uneventful, others full of marches, speeches and strikes.
The last decade has certainly had its share of confrontations. Unions have always had to fight for just treatment and fair wages. Constant vigilance keeps our organizations strong and unified.
But today, unions are facing their greatest threat in generations. Disputes over contract negotiations, work assignments and layoffs will seem like a day at the beach compared to the clash that is on the horizon. Public sector unions will not only be fighting to preserve wages and benefits, but for the most basic union rights - perhaps even for the very existence of the labor movement.
The financial state of local, state and federal governments - brought down by years of mismanaged budgets and the recent economic meltdown - have changed the terms of the debate. The national mood swells with anger at the financial troubles in their own households and the country at large. Much of that resentment has been channeled against unions, a highly visible and easy target.
The public conversation is becoming increasingly one-sided. The media portrays public pension funds like they are just bottomless pits dug by unions for dumping buckets of taxpayer dollars. Benefits are criticized as overly generous. Wage increases are looked upon with scorn.
Under intense pressure to balance budgets and calm their restless constituents, many elected officials are putting the entire blame and burden of government's fiscal problems on the back of public unions. Instead of tackling bloated and inefficient programs, or enacting a more equitable tax structure, it's simpler to lay off workers and cut benefits for new hires.
Just listen to the rhetoric from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made attacking the teachers union into his own personal hobby. His tough talk and massive cuts to education have not been met with broad concern, but embraced by many conservative pundits. Here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing a far-reaching overhaul to the civil service work rules. Many of these proposals would undermine key elements of the current system - seniority, exams, etc. - that serve as the backbone of our civil service system, a system that was created to end patronage and abuses.
Such moves have real consequences beyond the bottom line of the budget balance sheet. New Jersey cut a school bond offering after Gov. Christie publicly stated that health care costs could bankrupt the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call for a pay freeze will certainly have a detrimental effect on worker morale and interest from potential new employees. Such plans, instead of encouraging economic opportunity, take away jobs from workers who could put more tax revenue into the public coffers.
Unions did not create the large budget deficits for which they take so much of the blame. These shortfalls are the result of poor political decisions in the past and the epic collapse of Wall Street. Even as the financial industry recovers and begins hiring again, the anger that once was squarely directed at greedy bankers has slowly faded. Wall Street has essentially been forgiven its losses, while working class people once again foot the bill for the rich.
For example, contrary to popular belief, the pensions, benefits and pay for unionized public workers are not the main source of state budget woes. In several states without government contribution to pensions, such as Texas, the budget deficits are even higher per capita than in New York. The pension deficit in New York is not the fault of the unions, but actually Wall Street and former Gov. Pataki, who in the 1990s decided to cut the amount the state contributes into the fund.
Moreover, despite press reports identifying a handful of large pension recipients, the average public pension for a New York City Employees Retirement System worker is less than $19,000 a year. This represents vital income needed to sustain people who have served the public good their entire careers.
On pensions and the other conflicts to come, we will stand our ground in this public debate. We must follow the example of Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this month, who helped construct a new nation with organized, non-violent protest.
We will face this conflict with dignity and aggressive action, and I believe we will win the day. Dr. King was not just a civil rights leader, but a true crusader for the labor movement. He understood that workers' and social rights are linked. In the end, it is about fairness, which occasionally must be championed and defended from those who would take advantage of the working class. Those days are coming. We are ready.