Public sector: ‘You’ve got a bulls-eye right here’

March 1, 2011

[Editor’s note: the keynote address at the ILCA awards luncheon in Washington last November was delivered by Ed Ott, former executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council. It was a humdinger, and in light of recent events, more than a little prophetic, but space limitations preclude more than a few excerpts here. To read the whole speech, visit the ILCA’s website at:]


We’re in a situation where we have so many people who are disconnected from possibility that it is on the brink of social dynamite. Huge swaths of this country have lost everything that defines their culture.

Our own U.S. Capitol has played a seditious role in our economy. They have used their political power to rig the tax laws to shift the wealth disproportionately to the top, and they used that same power to break the back of organized labor in the private sector by the wholesale export of our industries.

If we ran down the street and someone grabbed our wallet, we would be screaming for the police. They stole our entire livelihoods; they stole entire communities; they stole everything that defined generations of hard work. And they walk around now within blocks of this building, prepared to tell us how we’re going to live for a generation.

The question before the house—whether you’re AFL-CIO, whether you’re Change to Win, whether you’re independent—the question before the house of labor is, “Where do we go from here, and what are we going to do about it?” Every union organizer is taught from day one: play the cards you’re dealt. We’ve got a bad hand . . . .

How many of you are in the public sector? Well, that’s the bad news for you. That is not a good thing. This is a movement that will live or die in the private sector. And what has happened—that period I described earlier, of them destroying entire cultures and communities of the people who made things, moved things, built things—has left us in a private sector with a working class many of whom are working for 10 dollars an hour or under. No sick days, no holidays, no benefits. You think about that for a second.

People don’t understand: how did the Republicans, and about a third of the Democratic party, get traction on the notion that the teachers who teach our children are the bad guys? How did they get traction on [the idea that] the people that provide vital services are the bad guys?

Well, let me tell you a story. How did it happen? It happened because if you’re working for 10 dollars an hour or less and you look at somebody that has a job that the day they’re hired they have 12 sick days, 12 holidays, five personal days, three weeks’ vacation. . . . Some Republican or Blue Dog Dem comes on the TV and says, “I want to take away five days,” and we scream like our children have been murdered, but for a working class that has nothing, that doesn’t make sense.

And I would submit to you that the social base for our undoing is in an impoverished working people. Every labor person understands social wage. Increase in rent: wage cut. Increase in cost of transportation is a wage cut. Well, a tax cut is a raise.

And the reason that Republican and Blue Dog Democrats get traction on that issue is if you’re working for nothing and somebody sends you a $600 check in the mail, and it’s from the U.S. government, it’s a raise. And they are seducing generations of workers. We need to come to terms with what the dynamic of this discussion really is.

This is a period for the labor movement to take inventory. Part of that inventory has to be the political reality of what it means that our public sector is 72% of our union members.

We need to raise wages in this country. I believe we need to re-form our message to Democratic politicians. You want more revenue? Raise wages. We shouldn’t be the guys running around tellin’ people they gotta pay more taxes. When they hear “tax the rich,” some of your public school teachers, public sector workers, think you’re talking about them. Because in, certainly in some of the cities like New York, they are the rich folks in a lot of people’s eyes. And tax questions are not resonating with our own members, and you all know it. Raise Social Security. Raise the minimum wage. Raise prevailing wages, wherever they exist. Fight for living wages where there are none. Democrats want to do something for working people? Raise wages. You want more revenue? Raise wages. We should not support any tax increases unless they raise wages. We can’t afford it. . . .

Three weeks ago, front page of the Wall Street Journal, the last line of that article is some whack governor who says, “Well, now we can have a real discussion about whether we should have collective bargaining and unions in the public sector at all.”

If you’re in the public sector you’ve got a bulls-eye right here.

And don’t think that they will not put the boot to us. This is their moment. The one big difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party—for all the wrong reasons, I might add—is that the Republicans since Ronald Reagan have consistently stated up front what they wanted to do and they have done it. And if they’re talking about taking away collective bargaining in the public sector, you can believe that there’s at least a substantial number of them that are going to try it.

You will see governors trying to abrogate contracts, eliminate pensions. . . .

This is not the Republican Party of the Scrantons and the Rockefellers. This is a mean-spirited, class-conscious group of haters. . . .