On Sunday, Feb. 5, big things were going on both inside and outside of Lucas Oil Stadium. Inside, Super Bowl XLVI was attracting worldwide attention. Outside, in a nearby park, was a much less recognized aggregate of “Occupy Indianapolis” protestors.
Their interest was to generate opposition to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ brain child — a peculiarly named “right to work” law that is part of a new fad of Republican governors, popularly known as “union busting.” What is really behind this move to balance state budgets by laying the weight of this burden on the backs of public service workers?
It is not uncommon to read editorials and columnists’ opinions, written by those of a conservative persuasion, who argue that many first responders, such as police, firefighters and other public servants, should not even have the right of collective bargaining. Furthermore, their pensions and health plans are said to be too lavish. They somehow will not accept the simple reality that where you have an employer/employee relationship, there might be a need for collective bargaining as a means to effect a balance of power. In this respect, there is no difference between private or public interests.
Indiana is of special interest to me because I went there in 1946 to begin a long period of strenuous labor and study at Anderson College and Theological Seminary. This was followed by a higher degree at Ball State Teachers College in Muncie. At that juncture, labor unions were not struggling for survival. General Motors had seven large plants in operation and there appeared to be harmony between labor and management. I was fortunate to have a job in the main cafeteria baking pies on the night shift. When needed, I also scrubbed the huge kettles in which food was cooked and helped load it onto trucks to be delivered to the other plants.
Fifty years later, my wife Joanie and I made a visit to Anderson, Ind. The seminary had grown into a university and was thriving. The General Motors plants had a different story. Six of the seven plants were closed — the parking lots cluttered with trash and overgrown in weeds. We were saddened by what we saw. Only a few months earlier, we had visited Bethlehem, Pa., and were witness to a seven-mile stretch of buildings and sheds totally abandoned. The steel makers had suffered the same fate as the auto industry.
Indiana appears to be as conservative politically now as it was then. How could I forget the occasion when I was requested to come to the college president’s office? In a very personal way, I became acquainted with the most conservative political force in town — a group called the American Guard. Their complaint to the college president was that a practice teacher in a civics class was radical, and it was their duty as a social watchdog to do their job. I assured the president that, at that stage of my intellectual development, I lacked the desire and the qualifications to lead a crusade. That brought an end to the “tempest in a teapot.”
This drive to break unions rests on the Republican governors’ idea that budgets should be balanced by the middle class sacrificing excessive benefits. It is a misguided assault. This economic downturn is the result of the misbehavior of the financial elite in this country. It wasn’t firefighters, law enforcement officers or public school teachers who securitized bundles of cruddy mortgages to corrupt the housing market.
What has happened in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan can happen in any other state if people are not alert to what is going on. The American labor movement has struggled too long, against relentless opposition, to be crushed by greed or lack of support.
There is no virtue in alienating the loyal and productive workers who regularly labor at dangerous and sometimes unpleasant jobs. Many are being robbed of retirement benefits promised to them during good times. What a shocking betrayal of good faith. What has happened in Indiana can happen anywhere the sense of fair play is conquered by greed.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.