ANALYSIS: Think again

Anti-public employee ads presage another war on unions and government


If you’ve seen the Nurse Ratchet look-alike at a make-believe DMV counter in those “Union Facts” ads, you have witnessed more than just another random act of public employee pillory.

These ads are the stuff of a nationwide, anti-union, anti-government campaign as sinister and scurrilous as the swift boat attacks on John Kerry.

It’s not surprising that the business groups behind these ads don’t want their identities known. Campaigns like these are launched from dark places and financed with black bags of hidden money.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce seems to have their fingerprints on at least some of the money, according to the national AFL-CIO. But their swift boaters don’t fly real flags. Instead, they paint themselves with emblems like the “Center for Union Facts.” Nurse Ratchet is their anti-figurehead, lashed to the bow for maximum shock effect.

We’ve seen these attacks before, when national money helped to finance Bill Sizemore’s assault on public employees, their unions and government itself in Oregon in the 1990s.

In retrospect, we fought what became a Nine Years War back then. It began with Sizemore’s Ballot Measure 8, which attacked public employee pay and pensions in 1994. It continued with two more ballot measures targeting public employee benefits, three measures which attacked our unions and four tax-limitation measures — only one of which was approved by the voters. It ended with Sizemore’s failure to qualify a single measure for the ballot in 2002 and his organization’s subsequent conviction for racketeering.

Now, after four years of relative quiet on the Oregon front, the forces behind Sizemore are on the move again. We should prepare for another war and learn from the last one.

An important lesson from Oregon’s Nine Years War is that our attackers have twin targets — unions and government — and a single strategic battle plan to bust the former and disable the latter.

I used to think that Sizemore made a fatal mistake when he shifted from a tax-cutting agenda (passing Measure 47 in 1996) to an attack on public employee unions (failing by a narrow margin with Measure 59 in 1998) and then to an assault on both public and private unions (losing big with Measure 92 in 2000). But Sizemore was an ideologue. He couldn’t abide unions that deliver good contracts for their members or governments that deliver benefits for working families. Neither could his funders.

The same ideology informs the “Union Facts” attacks. Go to their Website and you’ll find a display of statistics taking public employees to task for such alleged excesses as “8 hours of sick leave per month (and) benefit dollars to spend on medical and dental insurance.”

And, when you look at the states in which they’re running their ads, you find a perfect coincidence with those in which Americans for Limited Government is sponsoring proposed spending limits to curtail the good things that state governments can do for their citizens — as that organization is doing here in Oregon with Measure 48.

The “Union Facts” attackers know that if voters can be convinced that public employees are privileged, those voters are more likely to endorse the anti-government agenda. That’s when the politics of resentment trumps the politics of hope.

The last time that happened was in 1994, when state employees had just taken a wage freeze, but private-sector workers were suffering in what became the year of the angry white male voter. Sizemore succeeded with his attack on public employee pay and pensions that year — not because public employees were raking in raises, but because private-sector workers were on the ropes.

Life is more precarious in the private sector now. Jobs are less secure, and more workers are living paycheck to paycheck — thanks to the Chamber of Commerce types who bash unions, encourage outsourcing and promote free trade.

Public employees are different, the DMV ad seems to say, “they don’t have to worry about their jobs.” That’s not true, given our propensity for budget crises and the pressures for privatization. But, when you compare the nervy arrogance of the Nurse Ratchet figurehead to the nerve-wracking insecurity of so many private sector workers, the contrast can easily fuel a new politics of resentment.

That’s the weapon the swift- boaters are using against us. In a maneuver that Machiavelli would appreciate, they’re trying to inflame resentment against public employees and their unions by exploiting economic anxieties that they, the swift-boaters and the organizations that are sponsoring them, have helped to create.

Winning this next war won’t be easy. We have to fight on two fronts, reminding our fellow working people that life will be more precarious without unions, which I think most Americans intuitively understand, and convincing them that government can be a force for good in their lives, on which Americans remain divided.

I’m convinced that we can’t have strong unions today without a government that uses its resources to make life better for working people — and vice versa. And I’m not the only one. The swift-boaters and their sponsors understand that, too.

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.