Dean: Don’t Make Working People the Scapegoat for Economic Woes

Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:58pm

The weak recovery that is making national headlines daily is almost nonexistent at the state and local levels. Across the country, from financially strapped New Jersey to fiscally floundering California, states are facing severe budget shortfalls. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that 46 states are confronting deficits this fiscal year totaling $112 billion.

[IMGCAP(1)]While the problem mushrooms, politicians and big business are looking for someone to blame. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week blamed the White House, and national Republicans demonized the victims of this economy through the backward argument that extending unemployment benefits will promote joblessness. 

The blame game played by conservatives and business interests on the national stage is echoed at the state level by candidates and incumbents who want to set up public servants, and by proxy their unions, as the scapegoat for the states’ woes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has made perhaps the boldest headlines by battling the teachers’ union in his state, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett accused some jobless Pennsylvanians of choosing to collect unemployment checks rather than going back to work. Conservatives nationwide have suggested that outsized pensions and unsustainable promises of job security for public employees have locked states into insurmountable deficits.

Amid a slow recovery from a deep recession, it is not surprising that politicians, seeking to protect their political fortunes, would blame working people in general and public-sector unions specifically. It’s also not surprising that their cries find sympathetic ears in the electorate. History tells us people will look for a scapegoat when they are hurting and can’t find a solution. Public employees who are wrongly perceived to have plush benefits and ample job security are easy targets.

The truth, however, is that these attacks go beyond the politics of elected officials trying to meet tight budgets. They are part of an ideological assault that promotes a downward spiral for all working people in America. To address the crises of state budgets and our larger economy, we need to go beyond scapegoating, examine the ideology that has gutted our economy and defend a vision of economic recovery that places good jobs at its core.

For three decades conservatives have argued we need to “starve the beast” of government. In their drive to cut back big government, they have consistently eliminated sources of government revenue — most significantly through giveaways that have allowed corporations to avoid paying their fair share. Today, we can see the conservatives’ success. States are out of money. The “beast” has been starved and working people suffer.

Most Americans believe that politicians should be frugal in making use of their tax dollars. But they also believe that the very services that unionized public employees provide are essential to sustaining healthy communities. Instead of cutting the pensions and health care for fire fighters, police officers and public school teachers, or ending services for those desperately in need of them, we should be asking why creating jobs with living wages and fair benefits isn’t the very heart of our economic recovery plan.

Even as major indicators rebound, creating jobs is still a low priority for Wall Street. As reported earlier this month, a survey by Duke University and CFO magazine showed that “nearly 60 percent of the companies surveyed don’t expect to bring their employment back to pre-recession levels until 2012 or later — even though they’re projecting a 12 percent rise in earnings and a 9 percent boost in capital spending.” According to more of the right’s backward logic, as long as business rebounds, it doesn’t matter that we’re not generating jobs that allow people to pull themselves out of poverty. This myopic focus on profits over broad prosperity will undo our fragile economy. 

Politicians critical of unions often argue the public sector needs to be run more like a business. But they rarely put this principle into practice when giving bailouts to big business. At the federal level alone, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that, over the next 10 years, corporate tax breaks will cost the government $1.2 trillion.

These public subsidies are often negotiated with a wink and a nod, with only vague reassurances that they will help companies to create jobs. If a financially strapped state is going to continue giving tax breaks for a business project, elected officials should be held accountable for using public funds for public benefit — in the form of affordable housing, living-wage jobs or a concrete expansion of the tax base.

Public employees exercising their right to bargain collectively did not produce the budget difficulties that so many of our states are now facing. What did produce the crisis is an ideologically driven effort to shrink government at a time when people need it most, combined with a failure of elected officials to demand public returns from companies benefiting from public assistance.

To escape this predicament, we need to stop scapegoating working people and the unions that fight for them and start demanding that government, in handling its revenue, begin acting for the public good. 

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.” She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and from 1993-2003 served as president and CEO of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.