In our final show for 2012, we sit down with labor historian Bob Bruno of the University of Illinois.
It’s been a tumultuous year for organized labor in Chicago, in Illinois and in the nation as a whole. We began our conversation with the omni-present policy of government privatization. Bruno is, generally speaking, not a fan.
“We’ve had a couple of decades to study the impact of privatization”, he says. “And what you find is that the promises of privatization fall far short. The reality is that there isn’t a great savings over the public sector. The work isn’t done any better. In fact, about a third of privatization comes back – it gets in-sourced back into the government agency. There’s all kinds of hidden costs that aren’t calculated, and typically you then find political connections.”
A major topic of our talk is the public perception that labor unions are a cause of economic decline, rather than an engine of capital expansion. Historian Bruno says the earliest seeds of anti-union sentiment can be traced, not surprisingly, to the beginnings of the labor movement. But the attempt to paint teachers, police officers, firefighters, garbage workers and street light technicians as the cause of our financial woes is relatively new.
“This national demonization of teachers, who, by all standards, given their skills, given their education, are underpaid vis-a-vis people who are similarly situated in the private sector – and we’ve now demonized them. It’s counter to what a prosperous society would do.”
But he applauds the Chicago Teachers’ Union, saying they could teach other unions a few things.
“They’re a wonderful model about what the labor movement could do to push back against this right-wing, neoliberal political attack”, he says. “It starts with educating your members. They not only built a relationship in a way that previous leaderships of the teachers’ union hadn’t done…but they then very strategically got into every single school and they built a structure that could fight back. And they looked for allies.” And no ally was more significant, he adds, than the large numbers of parents who stood with their teachers.
Bruno talks at length about the history of “right to work” legislation, which just became law in Michigan. He also talks about the general perception that Mayor Emanuel has not treated organized labor fairly, especially in the most recent dispute with janitorial services at O’Hare. He points out that cost savings don’t necessarily benefit the taxpayers directly, but simply add to the profit margin for the maintenance companies.