I am a proud union member from a union family, and a lifetime member of the United Auto Workers union. In the mid- to late 80s I remember walking picket lines with my father and the union workers at Colt Firearms as they endured one of the longest strikes in Connecticut history. Today we are still reaping the benefits of the sacrifices that were made by so many union members willing to stand together united for a just cause.
Coming from a union family I came to realize the importance of strength in unity. I was raised to understand that in America’s system of “checks and balances,” the incredible accumulation of economic power in the hands of large corporations could never be balanced by one worker alone, only by the organized voice of thousands of working families.
Through that system, which my parents and grandparents lived from 1930s through the 1970s, the American economic miracle was not only built, but shared through the working and middle classes.
Now I know that something is wrong. This is the first generation of Americans that is expected to do worse than their parents and grandparents. Our state has recurrent fiscal crises and slow economic growth.
If I listen to some right-wing politicians, or even read editorials from some newspapers, I’m given the magic answer. State employees have decent pensions and health care. We know that by law – just as in the private sector – we can’t take their pensions away if they are retired, or for the years they’ve already worked. But if only we could take away pensions from state teachers, bridge inspectors, nurses and correctional officers, and others for future years, we’re told, things will be good for the rest of us.
So I looked it up. In 2017, the gross domestic product of our state was $260.8 billion. Our total state budget was $20.4 billion The total amount our state was required to put into the pension system to fund the promises it made that year to pay pensions was $262 million. That’s less than 1.3 percent of the state budget, and less than .1 percent of our state’s gross domestic product. Not even a 10th of a penny on a dollar.
Even if it was moral or just not to pay a single penny for the retirement security of state workers, how could taking those tiny payments away fix everything? Or anything at all?
The answer, of course, is it couldn’t. And then I remembered.
Our union had a long strike many years ago, a strike in which the company sought to break our union. Before the strike, materials and stories circulated in the workforce. Younger workers were told the problem was the older workers – they were too slow, their health insurance cost too much.
Older workers were told the problem was the bad work habits of the young ones. Black workers were told to blame white workers, and white workers to blame black. The union was never able to prove the stories started with the company.
But we knew better. We weren’t fooled. The union stuck together and won.
Today, the real problem we have is the incredible growth of economic power and income in the hands of the tiniest few. I looked that up, too. The biggest corporations and a handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires now control more wealth and power than at any time in American history. Last year, CEO pay soared to 361 times that of the average worker.
When too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands, the economy slows, community well-being diminishes, smaller businesses fail and others bail for greener pastures. But in every state, they tell private sector union workers to blame public sector union workers. They tell non-union workers to blame unions. And of course, they’ve never stopped trying to divide us based on race, or age, or country of origin.
(Which reminds me: It’s funny how the same politicians, think tanks and commentators who rail against my public sector brothers and sisters also band together to prevent raising the minimum wage, or paid family medical leave, or real limitations on prescription drug price-gouging.)
Standing together to fight for an economy that works for all; building and enhancing the ability of unions to demand justice for all working families; and demanding that our elected officials invest in our futures, and enforce the rules of a fair economy, is the answer.
Attacking Connecticut state employees because they have a decent retirement is a politically convenient game of distraction, distortion and division. I won’t fall for it. You shouldn’t, either.
Michael Holmes is the Union Shop Chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 376 at Colt Manufacturing.