BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you've probably heard by now, 14 Democratic senators from the state of Wisconsin are on the lam, having fled a few weeks ago to nearby Illinois to avoid voting on a decidedly anti-union piece of legislation. Among other things, the bill would increase public employee contributions to pensions and health care and strip public unions of certain collective bargaining rights. Republican Governor Scott Walker has argued that the measures are needed in light of the state’s ballooning budget shortfall. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of public employees took to the streets in protest. And so, the standoff continues, with the Democrats standing in for the working man and the Republicans for fiscal responsibility. And what about the unions and their, you know, executives and leaders and – what’s the word I'm looking for? Oh, right – bosses.
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MALE NARRATOR: Barack Obama is preparing a billion-dollar campaign. With his record, he'll spend every penny. Families are struggling. State budgets have run dry and the federal debt is skyrocketing. But Obama and the union bosses are standing the way of economic reform, intimidating taxpayers, leaving classrooms empty. They made this mess. Let's clean it up. Stop Obama and his union bosses today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was a Republican National Committee ad released this week, which used the phrase “union bosses” to imply corrupt bullies, a once common term in anti-union rhetoric. Only this time around, that RNC ad seems to be an exception. Much of the local and even national coverage has been sympathetic to the public employees, which, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, ain't how it used to be. Lichtenstein is the director of the Center of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, and he says that unions have historically had something of an image problem.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: In the past, when there was a strike or, even worse, some scandal, media sort of jumped on that in a semi-negative way. A strike, whether it was for good reasons bad, disrupts other people, disrupts life, and that’s a negative. The strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers in 1981, which Ronald Reagan jumped on, generated a lot of negative coverage – some of the same arguments, you know, they're getting paid too much and they should be happy with what they have. And that set off a chain reaction in the private sector, largely, in the 1980s, of managements taking a hard line against unions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to a Pew study in August, 1981, 59 percent of the public apparently agreed with Reagan that it was worth shutting down the Air Traffic Controllers. But in Wisconsin, a recent Pew study suggests that a wide majority of people support the Wisconsin unions.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Right, and the difference is this. Reagan was elected sort of decisively and moved against these 11,000, relatively small group of workers who had tried to shut down the entire air transportation system. In Wisconsin, there isn't a strike, there hasn't been a strike. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER] And furthermore, we're dealing with a much larger group of workers. Many of them, of course, people know very intimately. And, therefore, the situation is reversed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re saying part of the reason the coverage generally has been much more positive is because these are friends and neighbors. These are people that we're more likely to know. You also suggest that it’s very telegenic.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Well yes, because you have these crowds, and, you know, any photograph of them or clip of them shows all sorts of ordinary people, many women, of course, many young people, but also policemen and firefighters and Green Bay Packers [LAUGHS], you know, who are out there with these schoolteachers and social workers and home health care workers. So there’s kind of this unusual and across the entire population sort of grouping there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mention that the traditional demonization of unions and labor hasn't worked or been employed much this time. For example, you don't really hear the term “union boss” being thrown around that much.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Well, right. One could plausibly use that phrase, although I think incorrectly, when you had union leaders and managers sitting in a closed room, you know, cutting a deal, and that’s sort of the essence of collective bargaining. But when you have 50,000 people or more every day out in the streets, the phrase “union boss” doesn't compute, unless you’re Qaddafi or something and you think that [LAUGHS] the uprising is purely a product of a conspiracy of your enemies. It’s clear that this has a genuine democratic popular flavor to it, and whether the union leaders want it or not, it’s taking place. So I think that has changed some of the rhetoric of the conservatives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Certainly the phrase has been used in the past, in fact, only a couple of years ago by the Chamber of Commerce, right?
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: That's right. And the contrast is striking. Two years ago, when Obama first came in, there was a big push by the labor movement and the Democrats to pass a new bill called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made union organizing easier. And the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups spent a lot of money on ads on TV demonizing the union leaders as labor bosses, and sort of thuggish, on the grounds that they were going to eliminate the election that workers would have to decide whether they wanted the union or not. And so, that was actually fairly successful from the point of view of the conservatives. Clearly, in Wisconsin, one can't demonize the leadership of the trade unions because you, you can't sort of order 50,000 people to go out in the street.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are not automatons. You mentioned Qaddafi. These are not people -
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who have had hallucinogens put in their Nescafe.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: [LAUGHS] That’s correct, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk to me a little bit about pop culture, because when I think of how unions are generally depicted -
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - on TV and in the movies -
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - in The Wire, The Sopranos -
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - they don't come off too well.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: No, they don't. There has been this level of rhetoric and discourse for really a century which I think quite unfairly puts the phrase “boss” next to the democratically elected officeholder who head the union. You know, bosses are autocratic figures. More rightly you would call a CEO a boss. You call Bill Gates a boss. I think that’s part of what’s seeped into the culture, and I think it reflects the viewpoint of a large section of certainly businessmen and others who think that unions ipso facto are illegitimate, and therefore the only way they exist is because union leaders, union bosses, are putting one over on their own membership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is a film like Norma Rae the exception that proves the rule?
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, it is. Norma Rae was a, you know, a study of a heroic union organizing drive, but the movie ended at the moment of sort of victory, when the union was certified. If the movie had continued for another three years, you would have found all the messy details of how to organize a contract, internal conflicts, managers saying, you know, you want too much, you’re going to put me out of business.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Norma Rae number two would have had a different flavor than Norma Rae number one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Would you say you’re objective on the issue of unions?
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Well, I would say that I'm an historian who has seen and understood that the development of democracy in any nation, in any part of the world is almost always, is always joined at the hip with the rise of institutions that represent the working class in some organized fashion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nelson, thank you very much.
NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: You’re welcome, indeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nelson Lichtenstein is the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
LONNY CHAPMAN: Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. Give us a longer break. Give us more smokin' time.