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President's Viewpoint

The Blame Game

Around the globe nations will honor workers on May 1– May Day. But for the union movement in the U.S., it feels more like a “mayday” distress call as uncertainty about the fate of public sector workers and the future of the middle class lies in the balance.

We are at the center of a climate of overblown, unwarranted, and politically-driven rhetoric about labor unions. What is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states is a classic shell-game. While state leaders slip corporate tax breaks into their budgets, they blame and demonize middle-class public workers for growing state deficits. This is a coordinated and resourceful effort to dis-assemble or severely weaken unions and silence the voices of working men and women.

There’s no doubt that labor unions are under attack. And the politicians behind these attacks are trying to stoke resentment of public employees and other union members. But most Americans aren’t buying it. A CBS News/New York Times survey indicates that six in 10 Americans oppose the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector union workers. They see through this political charade.

Instead, middle class Americans are concerned about the widening gulf between an ultra-wealthy elite and everyone else.

In 2009, a CEO’s pay was 263 times the average worker’s pay. Leaving out weekends, that means a CEO makes in one day what the average worker makes in a year! In our country today, the richest one percent of the people receive one-fourth of the total income, and five percent of U.S. households hold almost 64 percent of the country’s total wealth. At the same time, middle-class debt continues to rise while the personal savings rate of the average American has plummeted.

This economic imbalance hurts all workers, both private and public. While politicians use sleight of hand by blaming public workers and their unions, when you lift up the shell, we’re all fighting over the same coin.

This debate isn’t about balancing budgets. It’s about balancing power. Workers, acting collectively through their unions, created the middle class as income and wealth became more evenly distributed. In this current economic climate, strong unions are more important than ever. We need to level the playing field for all workers. And we need to be active voters who are proud to raise our voices and tell politicians: something is out of whack!

Growing the middle class is vital to sustaining our economy. And America cannot have a middle class without unions: a strong and powerful voice for working people and middle class families. That is a legacy of unions—and a future we can fight for.

—NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

“This debate isn’t about balancing budgets. It’s about balancing power....We need to level the playing field for all workers.”

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On the Web

Follow Dennis Van Roekel’s “Angles on Education” for thoughts and views on teacher professionalism, unionism, and transforming public schools.

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