The escalating assault on unions in Rhode Island and elsewhere seems directly proportional to the woes that organized labor is experiencing throughout the country. Which is to say, as labor continues to weaken, the attacks seem to sharpen in tone and alarm.
In Rhode Island, the focus is on public sector unions, led by Governor Donald L. Carcieri, who blames the state’s budget woes in large part on union-negotiated medical and pension benefits richer than taxpayers can afford.
Carcieri also vehemently opposes attempts by 1300 home child-care providers to organize, originally by seeking official status as state workers, but now through a proposed law that would give them bargaining rights as independent contractors. "I’m appalled that these independent business people are willing to benefit themselves at the expense of children, families, and taxpayers," the Republican governor said last month while promising to veto a bill if passed by the General Assembly.
"The child-care providers unionization campaign threatens to seriously undermine one of the state’s most important — and most successful — social welfare programs," Carcieri added, warning that a union might "negotiate away safety standards for our children"
The Providence Journal, which often seems the governor’s repeater, belittled the day care providers in an editorial, calling them "basically babysitters," and predicting their "union would become a kind of vast taxpayer-paid monopoly."
The providers hardly seem so insidious. Many are Hispanic, creating mini-child care centers in their homes. They work long hours that can bring their net pay below the minimum wage, while guiding children through critically formative years so that their parents can work, often at low-wage jobs. While it’s possible that the First Rhode Island Regiment of Babysitters could outflank the Carcieri administration at the bargaining table, it seems premature to suggest they’ll bankrupt the treasury and strip away rules that safeguard the children they’re pledged to protect.
What is clear is that the now two-year-old day care organizing drive, led by the aggressive Service Employees International Union, is one of the few bright spots for labor, locally or nationally, in part because the providers managed last fall to elect one of their own — Providence’s Grace Diaz — to the General Assembly and claim to have helped a number of other Democratic candidates. But overall, unions are in trouble. A January report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that just 12.5 percent of workers are union members, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.
The trends hold true in Rhode Island, too. The bureau estimates 79,000 union members here in 2004, down from 84,000 a year earlier. In relative terms, 16.3 percent of employed workers here are union members. Despite its reputation as a labor bastion, Rhode Island ranks tenth nationally in union membership.
Significantly, union membership is higher among government workers than those in the private sector. Nationally, the BLS says, about 36 percent of government workers belong to unions, compared to about eight percent in private jobs. The outlook is actually grimmer, given the turmoil faced by the well-unionized airline industry and the faltering fortunes of the Big Three US automakers, which provide some of America’s best-paying union jobs.
All of this gives the assault on public sector unions — including the often-maligned teacher unions — the feel of somebody being kicked while they’re down, or at least while they’re not doing particularly well in the late rounds.
Like other American institutions, labor has its faults. But its historic agenda – pay to support family, humane working conditions, health-care and a pension to supplement Social Security — hardly seems un-American.
And given labor’s terrible membership numbers, it appears alarmist to bump up the Terror Alert several colors by shouting, "The Babysitters are coming," even before the day care providers have made it to the bargaining table.
Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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